Irrational Animals: a neuroscience take on the news

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Why brain-teasers don't work

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Infant protégé? Photograph: Getty Images

Question: Beulah died in the Appalachians while Craig died at sea. Everyone was much happier with Craig’s death. Why? Answer: Beulah and Craig were both hurricanes.

Irritating, isn’t it? Brain-teaser questions are all irritating. It’s not that the answers are hard, just that they’re set in a context you’d have to be odd to anticipate. They’re the verbal equivalent of the game where you offer someone a high-five only to slap them in the face, or of dating men in London. Only a hyperalert psychopath could expect to get it right.

But ever since Microsoft decided to use brain-teasers in recruitment interviews back in the 1990s they’ve been spreading like gas in a hermetically sealed kitchen from which you have exactly nine minutes to escape. Tech firms use them; banks use them; Oxbridge has always used them.

They don’t work for hirers, though. They also actively discourage good candidates and have long-term ramifications for a company’s ability to recruit, according to research that came out in October. After putting 360 participants through the mill, Chris Wright of San Francisco State University found that otherwise qualified workers are put off interviews that use brain-teaser questions because they see them as unfair and setting them up for failure.

More than that, Wright found, interviewers don’t know what to do with the answers. The questions are often open-ended with no clear solution, so employers are often impressed with how a retort sounds, rather than what it includes. With open-ended brain-teasers – “Is this a question?” – it’s the smart-arse “Only if this is an answer” that gets points, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the similar “Is your mum a question?” and “Is your face a question?” scored just as high. In Wright’s study, interviewers did a much better job of working out a participant’s skill level after hearing answers to conventional rather than puzzle problems.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow the psychologist Daniel Kahneman lists a few puzzles that it’s hard to get right. Here’s one: a bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The answer most people give is ten cents: “intuitive, appealing, and wrong”. That would make the bat $1.10 ($1 more than the ball) and the total $1.20. The answer is five cents.

Not too difficult to work out, in the end, so why do people get it wrong? Kahneman says that it’s a question of motivation. Some people are simply lazy and some are, by nature, “engaged. More alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive  answers, more sceptical about their intuitions.”

But I would go further. Some people are expecting to be asked a brain-teaser question and are trying to impress the questioner, and others are simply trying to end the encounter politely so they can get to the bar. If you’re in the latter category, what the brain-teasers are testing is your sensitivity to context. If you’re sensitive enough, you get the answers wrong. Of course you do. The questioner is indicating left. Why would you ordinarily turn right? It would be a monumental waste of energy to expect the unexpected all the time. Thank goodness most of us don’t.