Are We Answering the Right Questions?

Danny Gray
August 29 2011 07:35AM

"A hockey stick and a puck together cost \$1.10. The stick costs \$1 more than the puck. How much does the puck cost?"

Be honest, did you say \$0.10? Many people answer this question incorrectly, and our difficulty with it illustrates something important about the way we think. Most people see the total amount and slice it into two small amounts. Your brain sees \$1 associated with the stick and that the two items together cost \$1.10 so it quickly reaches the conclusion that the puck must be \$0.10. Unless you take the time to verify your answer you’re likely to be wrong. This process is called Attribute Substitution it is a type of Heuristic.

A heuristic refers to the process of solving a problem using experience-based techniques, like intuition, trial-and-error or “common sense”. They are cognitive short-cuts that make complex decisions easier. Heuristics can also apply to statistics based reasoning. Like the stick and puck example we have a tendency to break down complex decisions into more easily resolved problems.

Attribute Substitution

Attribute Substitution suggests that when faced with a question or judgment we often subconsciously substitute an easier to answer question. For example, some “college students answered a survey that included these two questions: “How happy are you with your life in general?” and “How many dates did you have last month?” The correlation between the two questions was negligible when they occurred in the order shown, but it rose to 0.66 when the dating question was asked first.” This lead researches to conjecture that “thinking about the dating question automatically evokes an affectively charged evaluation of one’s satisfaction in that domain of life, which lingers to become the heuristic attribute when the happiness question is subsequently encountered.”[1]

Think of it this way. SBN runs “Fan Confidence” polls on their websites. The level of fan confidence often correlates with the team’s record. When answering the question “How Confident about the Leafs are you?” most people unconsciously answer the much easier question “Did the Leafs win their last few games”.

Are we answering the right questions?

One of the biggest debates in Leafs Nation this summer has been Nikolai Kulemin’s goal projection for next season. Writers everywhere have looked at this question from every possible angle. While they were attempting to answer the question: Will Kulemin score 30 goals again? They all answered a slightly different question than the one being asked:  Can Kulemin sustain his shooting percentage?  What happened to other players who had similar seasons? Was there anything different about his most recent season to suggest the trend might continue?  Essentially, the question of “Will Kulemin score 30 goals again?” was substituted with “How likely is it that Kulemin will score 30 goals again?” This is a small, but significant difference. Most people looking at the question acknowledged the substitution, if only implicitly. While the substitution can occur consciously, the issue is that we are getting further from the original question, and are more susceptible to biases and a false sense of certainty. We may have definitively answered those questions and mistakenly assume we have answered the original question.

This is not to suggest that such exercises are fruitless, simply that we must realize the actual question being answered and be weary of drawing the wrong conclusions from the data. As with everything context and multiple variables must be considered.

Attribute Substitution is most likely to occur when “the target attribute is relatively inaccessible” and when “a semantically and associatively related candidate attribute is highly accessible”. When we are confronted with complex questions we can subconsciously retrieve the answer to a similar, easier question.  We need to be sure that we are answering the question that is being asked and recognize our tendency to substitute the answer to a different albeit similar question.

For anyone still wondering, the puck costs \$0.05.

1. Kahneman, Daniel and Frederick, Shane. Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment, Princeton University, August 2, 2001
Danny once met Doug Gilmour and it changed his life. Had he met Bret Hart the same day he would not have been able to handle it. He can be found on Twitter @ACatNamedFelix.