Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Wason selection task for understanding success

Let’s say there are four cards on a table, and each one has a number on one side and a colour on the other.
Card A shows the number 3.
Card B shows the number 8.
Card C shows the colour red.
Card D shows the colour brown.
Which cards would you have to flip over in order to confirm the statement that if a card has an even number on one side, then it is coloured red on the other?

This is the Wason selection task, and supposedly people are pretty bad at it. The answer is B and D. Neither A nor C can prove or disprove the statement, whatever their hidden sides reveal.

Let’s try another one. There are four people in a bar, and each one is drinking from a glass. The legal age for consuming alcohol is 21.
Person A is 18.
Person B is 25.
Person C is drinking beer.
Person D is drinking soda.
Whose ID or glass would you have to check to make sure that all those drinking alcohol are of legal age?

The answer this time is A and C, and interestingly enough, most people don’t have any problems answering this second one correctly, even though it is logically equivalent to the first. The explanation is that our capacity for reason evolved to follow social rules, not abstract concepts.

Let’s try one more.
Band A is good.
Band B is not so good.
Band C is successful.
Band D is not successful.
Which bands would you have to find out more about to confirm the statement that if a band is good, then their success is inevitable?

The answer is A and D. Again, this problem is logically equivalent to the others. In the real world, though, you can’t learn about Band D when you aren’t even aware that they exist. If they were a card, in other words, it would not be on the table. So is this problem more like the first, or the second? That is to say, does it run counter to most people’s capacity for reason, or does it follow it?

The reason I ask is because we are entering a new era of unprecedented models for achieving and sustaining recognition. Some bands have become viral sensations; others have showcased novel ideas for online distribution. This has led many observers to complacently believe that if a band is good, then their success is inevitable, all the while oblivious to the sheer volume of Band Ds out there politely being shielded from their view. In other words, while the technology is now available for us to witness many daring new success models, we have yet to develop the kind of critical thinking needed to accurately gauge whether they can ever be consistently and universally applicable.

The question is, will we ever? That is to say, are the concepts needed for this desired level of understanding rooted in the kind of social rules for which our human intuition naturally evolved? Or are they simply too abstract for the less sophisticated majority of us to ever follow? I hold out hope for the former, but unfortunately, I suspect it's the latter. Despite all the sociological research out there suggesting the precarious nature of success, the concepts and terms involved are probably too inaccessible to ever overcome the limitations of how our brains are ultimately built.

For better or worse, then, the burden will forever be on the losers to explain how they lost, not on the winners to justify why they won.