Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How humanizing a boring logic puzzle makes it much easier to solve - the Wason Selection Task -

I can't remember which book I found this in, but I found it fascinating.  Here's the setup for a logic problem:
You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) must you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?
It's a dry, boring problem. Here's a more visual representation of the problem: The Wason Selection Task. This is still very dry, but more understandable.

The really interesting part of this is not how bad we are, in general, when presented with this type of logic problem. Rather, it's how good we are when the exact same problem (in terms of the logical structure) is presented in a more natural, human setup:
For example, if the rule used is "If you are drinking alcohol then you must be over 18", and the cards have an age on one side and beverage on the other, e.g., "16", "drinking beer", "25", "drinking coke", most people have no difficulty in selecting the correct cards ("16" and "beer").
There are some theories for why people are so much better at solving this problem when presented in a social context. One author suggests that we have a strong "cheater detection module", that is not as dependent on our logical reasoning power. I also think that any problem, presented more realistic context that you can visualize, would be easier to solve.

I've used the insight from this in my work. For instance, when I'm explaining things and writing sample database code, I put a lot of extra effort into giving realistic table and field names. This makes concepts much more understandable. In this blog post on How to use a column name as an argument in a TOP clause, it took me much longer to come up with the sample code, because I wanted to make it more understandable. But I think that time is definitely worth it, to make it more coherent.

Here's a few links on the topic:

One other interesting point - I'd been wanting to write about this for quite some time now, but I couldn't remember what book I found the story in, and couldn't figure out how to look it up ("card problem"?  "logic puzzle"?), and what to search for on Google to find the details. But once I sat down and decided to do it, I searched for this phrase:

 "how many cards do you need to turn over to determine"

And the very first link that came up was correct!


Blogger The Blatt Family said...

I agree! It's easier to memorize a series of letters or numbers if you create a mental story of how they fit together, or an acronym...

12:51 PM  

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