Why brain-teasers don't work

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

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.

Infant protégé? Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Age verification rules won't just affect porn sites – they'll harm our ability to discuss sex

Relying on censorship to avoid talking about sex lets children down.

The British have a long history of censoring sex. In 1580, politician William Lambarde drafted the first bill to ban "licentious" and "hurtful... books, pamphlets, ditties, songs, and other works that promote the art of lascivious ungodly love". Last week, the UK government decided to have another crack at censorship, formally announcing that age verification for all online pornographic content will be mandatory from April 2018.

It is unclear at this point what this mandatory check will entail, but it's expected that you will need to submit your credit card details to a site before being allowed to access adult content (credit cards can’t be issued to under-18s).

The appointed regulator will almost certainly be the British Board of Film Classification who will have the authority to levy fines of up to £250,000 or shut down sites that do not comply. These measures are being directly linked to research conducted by the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner and the University of Middlesex in 2016, which surveyed more than 1,000 11 to 16-year-olds about viewing online pornography and found over half had accessed it. 

Digital minister Matt Hancock said age verification "means that while we can enjoy the freedom of the web, the UK will have the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world". And who can argue with that? No sane adult would think that it’s a good idea for children to watch hardcore pornography. And because we all agree kids should be watching Peppa Pig rather than The Poonies, the act has been waved through virtually unchallenged.

So, let’s put the issue of hardcore pornography to one side, because surely we are all in agreement. I’m asking you to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just children who will be censored and it’s not just Pornhub and Redtube which will be forced to age check UK viewers. This act will potentially censor any UK site that carries adult content, which is broadly defined by the BBFC as "that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal".

I am a UK academic and research the history of sexuality. I curate the online research project www.thewhoresofyore.com, where academics, activists, artists and sex workers contribute articles on all aspects of sexuality in the hope of joining up conversations around sex that affect everyone. The site also archives many historical images; from the erotic brothel frescoes of Pompeii to early Victorian daguerreotypes of couples having sex. And yet, I do not consider myself to be a porn baron. These are fascinating and important historical documents that can teach us a great deal about our own attitudes to sex and beauty.

The site clearly signposts the content and asks viewers to click to confirm they are over 18, but under the Digital Economy Act this will not be enough. Although the site is not for profit and educational in purpose, some of the historical artefacts fit the definition of  "pornographic’" and are thereby liable to fall foul of the new laws.

And I’m not the only one; erotic artists, photographers, nude models, writers, sex shops, sex education sites, burlesque sites, BDSM sites, archivists of vintage erotica, and (of course) anyone in the adult industry who markets their business with a website, can all be termed pornographic and forced to buy expensive software to screen their users or risk being shut down or fined. I have contacted the BBFC to ask if my research will be criminalised and blocked, but was told "work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website". No one is able to tell me what software will need to be purchased if I am to collect viewers' credit card details, how I would keep them safe, or how much this would all cost. The BBFC suggested I contact my MP for further details. But, she doesn’t know either.

Before we even get into the ethical issues around adults having to enter their credit card details into a government database in order to look at legal content, we need to ask: will this work? Will blocking research projects like mine make children any safer? Well, no. The laws will have no power over social media sites such as Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope which allow users to share pornographic images. Messenger apps will still allow users to sext, as well as stream, send and receiving pornographic images and videos. Any tech savvy teenager knows that Virtual Private Network (VPN) software will circumvent UK age verification restrictions, and the less tech savvy can always steal their parents' credit card details.

The proposed censorship is unworkable and many sites containing nudity will be caught in the crossfire. If we want to keep our children "safe" from online pornography, we need to do something we British aren’t very good at doing; we need to talk openly and honestly about sex and porn. This is a conversation I hope projects like mine can help facilitate. Last year, Pornhub (the biggest porn site in the world) revealed ten years of user data. In 2016, Brits visited Pornhub over 111 million times and 20 per cent of those UK viewers are women. We are watching porn and we need to be open about this. We need to talk to each other and we need to talk to our kids. If you’re relying on government censorship to get you out of that tricky conversation, you are letting your children down.

The NSPCC report into children watching online pornography directly asked the participants about the effectiveness of age verification, and said the children "pointed out its limitations". When asked what intervention would most benefit them, this was the overwhelming response: "Whether provided in the classroom, or digitally, young people wanted to be able to find out about sex and relationships and about pornography in ways that were safe, private and credible." I suggest we listen to the very people we are trying to protect and educate, rather than eliminate. 

Dr Kate Lister researches the history of sexuality at Leeds Trinity University