Wired to Answer Easy Questions

Daniel Kahneman describes one study of German students in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow when exploring heuristic questions. The study asks a group of students the following two questions:

  1. How happy are you these days?
  2. How many dates did you have last month?

When asked in this order, the results show that there was virtually no correlation between the number of dates and a student’s happiness. As Kahneman summarizes, “Evidently, dating was not what came first to the student’s minds when they were asked to assess their happiness.”

The experimenters posed these same questions to another group of students, this time changing the order:

  1. How many dates did you have last month?
  2. How happy are you these days?

Kahneman again, “The results this time were completely different. In this sequence, the correlation between the number of dates and reported happiness was about as high as correlations between psychological measures can get.”

Why were the results of these two experiments so different?

The brains of the students in the second experiment were primed to respond to the unasked question, ‘How happy are you with your love life?’ This process is called substitution. When faced with a difficult question, like the task of measuring your arbitrary happiness, your brain will look for an easier question to answer. In this case, because the students have just determined the number of dates they had had last month, their brain had a quick way to assess their happiness (higher happiness with more dates, lower happiness with fewer dates). The brain determined these two questions were related and provided a quick answer to the second question. Your brain does this too, and the more emotional a difficult question, the more you are likely to substitute the question asked.

The conclusions of this experiment are fun to think about. We can see that the order of the questions matter. We also know that your brain will look for a substitute question to answer when faced with a difficult query. It may be worth thinking about how you answer a difficult question, and challenge yourself before giving an answer to ensure you are answering the question that was asked.


A final thought by way of a quick story. I was at the beach this week with some friends. We had just finished eating doughnuts and were walking through town when we crossed paths with a man and his dog. Upon seeing the dog, my friend, Gina, exclaimed, “Look at that dog, it looks just like a s’more!”. Sure enough, it did, chocolate, graham cracker, and marshmallow tones dominated the dog’s fur coat. We all laughed, and I smiled a bit longer, knowing that the reason she made the s’mores comparison was because she had just finished eating a s’mores doughnut. The brain looks for associations naturally, sometimes subconsciously, even when there isn’t an association to be had.

[Initial draft written with an Apsara Absolute]


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