Taking the shortcut

Even when we answer a tough question without really applying our mind, we are conscious that the answer could be wrong

Rubik's cube

Rather than thinking through a question posed to us, sometimes we just answer without really thinking. At times we are just plain lazy to think hard enough. A new study by Wim De Neys and his other French colleagues, published online in Springer’s journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, acknowledges this phenomenon. But the study also reveals that we can sense being lazy and we are therefore less confident of the correctness of such ‘lazy’ answers. We are just being miserly in using our brain and we know it.

Prior research has documented this human tendency of ‘cognitive miserliness.’ What was missing was research on our consciousness of being lazy thinkers.

What’s an example of lazy thinking?

The ‘bat-and-ball’ question is an example to explain this laziness. Here’s the question:

A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The first answer that comes to mind is $0.1.

But think again! If the ball costs $0.1 and the bat costs $1 more i.e $1.1, then the sum would be $1.2 not $1.1. The correct answer is $0.05


For the study, the researchers also asked a similar question that was easy.

A magazine and a banana together cost $2.90. The magazine costs $2. How much does the banana cost?

The answer in this case is an obvious $0.9.

A total of 248 French university students were asked to answer both questions, the ‘bat-and-ball’ kind and the ‘magazine-and-banana’ kind. Having given the answers, they were asked to indicate how confident they were about their answers being correct.


Only 21 percent of the participants managed to solve the “bat-and-ball” problem correctly. In contrast, 98 percent of the participants answered the “magazine-and-banana” correctly. Also, those who gave the wrong answer to the first question were much less confident of their answer than they were of their answer to the second question. These results indicate that they were not completely oblivious to the incorrectness of their answer. The primary motivation seems to be that persons tend to minimize cognitive effort and stick to intuitive processing – the easy way out.

The authors comment: “Although we might be cognitive misers, we are not happy fools who blindly answer erroneous questions without realizing it.”



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