Last week’s study generated plenty of interest: it was the fastest we’ve ever gotten 400 responses. The study was based on a claim by this web site that they could influence your thoughts with 98 percent accuracy using a simple math quiz. If you haven’t tried it yet, unfortunately I’m going to spoil it for you right now: you’re supposed to think of a red hammer.
We wanted to answer a few questions about the claim. First, 98 percent? Really? Having done a survey or two, I’d be impressed with a survey that could predict 98 percent of the responses to “what is 2 + 2?”
Second, to the extent that the “thought control” works, how does it work?
To try to find out, we created two different versions of the test. The first version attempted to duplicate the original test exactly (our graphics aren’t quite as fancy, but we suspected that fancy graphics don’t really influence the results).
The second version changed a few things. We used different math problems, and we also changed the text of the instructions. We changed the claim to suggest that participants would think of a “yellow screwdriver” instead of a red hammer.
You can see the second version here
So, were we able to influence people’s thoughts? Take a look at the results:
Regardless of whether we claimed we were trying to cause people to think of a red hammer or a yellow screwdriver, only around 20 percent of respondents actually thought of a red hammer. This is clearly well short of the claimed 98 percent! Our respondents were just as likely to think of a blue hammer. Could the makers of the initial test simply have been lying?
Clearly they were at least guilty of stretching the truth. And, as many as 68 percent of respondents did think of either red or hammer. Perhaps they were relying on respondents to be impressed that half of their claim appeared to be true.
And what of our attempts to influence the results by changing the math problems and instructions? In our “yellow screwdriver” version we tried to come up with problems whose answers sounded a little like the words we were trying to evoke: the final problem, for example, resulted in an answer of 178, which, when you think about, sounds a little like “screwdriver.” The following two graphs show the pattern of responses to the two versions of the tests:
Note that the results are nearly identical, no matter which version of the test was given: it couldn’t have been the specific math problems that were motivating the responses — since we used different math problems in each version, the problems couldn’t be priming a response. Similarly, it doesn’t appear that the specific instructions had anything to do with the response.
So why do so many people think of “red” and “hammer”? I think part of the answer might come from this study from the Cognitive Daily archives. Adults tend to associate the color red with anger. Being asked to do a series of pointless arithmetic problems in your head may also make you angry, so this test might lead to a disproportionate “red” response. Otherwise, we might expect to see more “blue” responses. Indeed, our group did respond blue quite often — nearly as often as they said red. Perhaps Cognitive Daily readers have more patience for arithmetic than the general population, so a more typical response might involve even more “red” answers.
What about “hammer”? My guess is that hammer is just the most commonly thought of tool — it’s almost the prototypical tool.
Anyone have any other ideas? Let us know in the comments.