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?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Are cats solid or liquid? 13 of the best winners of the Ig Nobel prize

This satirical awards ceremony has celebrated unusual contributions to science for 27 years. 

Every year, the Ig Nobel Prize Committee hands out ten awards. A parody of the Nobel Prize, it recognises some of the most whimsical contributions to science. 

Categories include psychology, fluid dynamics and chemical engineering, much like the real Nobel Prizes, but change year to year. Its name is a pun on the word ignoble.

Studies that won prizes this year include a paper which discovered which part of the brain creates repulsion to cheese, a report on the effects of human blood in the diet of hairy-legged vampire bats, and research explaining why old men have big ears (gravity). The winners are just the latest in 27 years of the award. Here are 13 of the most head-scratching and unique winners:

1. Original conspiracy theories

Erich Von Daniken won the Literature Prize in 1991, the first year of the Ig Nobel awards, for his book Chariots of the Godswhich suggested human life takes its origins from ancient aliens that came to earth. Originally published in 1968, the book imagines that many ancient civilisations demonstrated higher scientific abilities than was possible given the limitations of their time, so aliens must have come to Earth and transmitted the knowledge to make human progress possible. 

2. The Antichrist from the East

Robert Faid, a mathematician, invested a huge amount of time in calculating the exact odds of whether Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, is the Antichrist. (The exact odds are 710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1, if you’re curious).

3. Refined pigeons 

Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto and Masumi Wakita successfully trained several pigeons to discriminate between Picasso’s paintings and Monet’s paintings, a skill that some humans might still be struggling with. 

4. Lovesick

Four scientists at the University of Pisa discovered that the biochemical basis of romantic love might not be all that different from the biochemical basis of neuroticism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as they observed the multiple ways that platelet serotonin was transported around various sections of the brain. 

5. Hell is closer than we think 

Dr. Jack Van Impe and Rexella Van Impe carried out research which demonstrated that one of the universe’s great mysteries, black holes, fulfil the theological and technical requirements to be the location of hell itself.

6. Feathery feelings 

Stefano Ghirlanda, Liselotte Jansson, and Magnus Enquist of Stockholm University demonstrated that our flightless friends may be no different to us – in that chickens prefer beautiful humans. Chickens were more likely to react to pictures of faces that were deemed more conventionally attractive.

7. Creative (non) fiction

This went to a whole group of people in Nigeria, the internet entrepreneurs who used e-mail to introduce many innocent fraud victims around the world to “a cast of rich characters – General Sani Abacha, Barriste Jon A Mbeki Esq”, who find themselves in need of a loan and rely on the generosity of strangers to access their own immense fortunes. 

8. Say Cheese 

Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commenwealth Scientific and Research Organisation did all the legwork and found the exact number of photographs that you have to take in order to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed. 

9. A girl's best friends 

Three scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México were able to create a girl’s best friend, diamonds, from her other best friend, tequila. They did this by heating tequila at very high temperatures to turn it into a gas. They then heated the gas further to break it into solid crystals that had the same composition as pure diamonds. 

10. Swearing is good for you 

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University finally proved that there’s a scientific basis for the belief that swearing relieves pain. It may have something to do with how swearing can nullify the typical fight-or-flight response to pain, among other reasons.

11. Beer goggles

Five scientists, Laurent Begue, Brad Bushman, Oulman Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra and Medhi Ourabah, confirmed that “beauty is in the eye of the beer holder” ie that if you’re drunk, you’re more likely to think you’re attractive.

12. More than a pet rock 

Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Fergon were able to use a sales and marketing perspective to ascertain the potential personalities of various kinds of rocks, by interviewing focus groups who said what they believed the rocks could be like. Some rocks (particularly the more fetching ones) were described as "classy, feminine", while others were seen more as "a hippy, someone who believes in star signs and whatnot". 

13. The internet's favorite animal 

Marc-Antoine Fardin sought to answer the age old question: cats – liquid or solid? Apparently, they're both. (Fardin admits there’s much more research to be done). 

A full list of every year's winners can be found here