Over the last few days, there was an opportunity to conduct a mini experiment under the guise of annoying a bunch of colleagues with a joke. I say ‘an opportunity’. More like, posed the same joke, as a challenge, several times to different people and got such an interesting range of responses (mostly non-violent) that I felt it worth rolling with it that bit longer.

The joke itself came from the Scotsman’s collection, “50 of the best jokes and one-liners from the Edinburgh Fringe” - in particular, one by Chris Turner. As written in the collection, it is presented as a punchy, very brief one-liner; a jokey fact:

"One in four frogs is a ..."

If told verbatim, the joke might just about elicit a grunt of acknowledgement, but it is over in a second and you then have to talk about work or something.

With a slight twist, this was presented to colleagues as a question:

"What do you call every fourth frog?"

Now, this is not over. Now, the listener is challenged to think of the ‘correct’ answer. Obviously, there has to be some trust that the payoff is worth their mental effort, and such assurances were duly given.

The punchline has been deliberately excluded here so the reader can have a go themself.

In the sample, no-one came up with the answer at this stage.

A hint was offered: “a calendar”.

With varying degrees of nudging, bullying, wheedling, exhorting, and emotional blackmailing, but no more hints given, everyone gave it some more thought. And here the differences manifested.

Those challenged can be categorised as follows, according to how they came up with the answer:

  • asked questions, begged for clues
  • tackled it themself
  • talked out loud with another person also trying to solve it
  • went for a walk
  • riffed on the calendar hint, said a word that was close to the answer, noticed belatedly, then found the answer
  • got stuck on a small number of wrong answers and could not break free of them

and how long it took:

  • within a few minutes, there and then
  • within a few minutes, after a distraction
  • much later, often after some more nudging

The numbers (caveat emptor) break down as follows:

  • one third of folk got stuck, and were most vigorous in begging for more clues. They needed at least two attempts to get there, with an hour or more between attempts.
  • one third of folk solved it there and then, not getting stuck at all, riffing on the calendar clue, stumbled on the answer, boom. One notable success involved a person spending most of the (less than a) minute saying how they were no good at this kind of thing whilst riffing their way to the answer quickest of all.
  • one third of folk left, muttering to themselves, and then a few minutes later pinged back with the answer.

Of the folk who solved it there and then, the main characteristics were:

  • they were in a pair who talked out loud to each other with ideas
  • they talked out loud to themself and did not fixate on or repeat any of the wrong ideas they came up with

Of the folk who solved it fairly quickly, but after a distraction, the common thread linking their various distractions is that they were all walking (or had just walked) when they came up with the answer.

So, from this I have learned, when tackling this kind of puzzle:

  • it is really easy to get stuck in a rut, to fixate on a small number of wrong answers, to try and force them to be the answer through sheer force of repetition. Once in this state, mentally you are stuffed. You might not even recognise the answer when you see it (true story). The only recourse is to give up and try again later.
  • great ways of not getting stuck in a rut are
    • don’t repeat yourself, and keep the flow of ideas going without judging them
    • talk out loud with someone else
    • go for a walk having thought about it

This might sound trite, but the (limited) evidence of the last week seems to bear it out.

It is all about leapfrogging the rut.