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Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Fun Linguistic Internet Scam

I ran into a thread on an internet board I frequent that replicated a "test" that is circulating now. It starts off this way: "At the end of this post, you will be asked a question. Answer it immediately. Don't stop and think about it. Just say the first thing that pops into your mind This is a fun "test"... AND kind of spooky at the same time! Give it a try."


Following this is a series of ten or so addition problems that are placed apart from each other by a gob of carriage returns to slow the reader down. Then comes the "question": "QUICK! THINK ABOUT A COLOR AND A TOOL!" We are then told
"You just thought about a red hammer, didn't you? If this is not your answer, you are among 2% of people who have a different kind of mind."


On my board a number of participants including me reported that they got "red" and "hammer." Blue came up with some and a few other tools came up.
Does this "test" separate out two different types of minds? The answer is, "No." I have given this sort of "test" (without including addition problems) a number of times in classes I have taught to illustrate the Prototype Theory of word meaning (or of concept formation).


The philosopher Ludwig Witgenstein argued in his "Philosophical Investigations" that the sorts of things that a word refers to cannot be characterized by a set of properties shared by all of the things it refers to. He noted that any such set of properties for the word "game" would inevitably include some things that aren't games and exclude some things that are. Not infrequently on sports talk shows, for instance, the question whether or not this or that activity (say, ice skating) is a sport comes up. Never can the hosts come up with an answer that pleases everyone. Wittgensten argued instead that the things that the word "game" refers to enjoy a set of family resemblances to each other based on the properties that they share.


Prototype Theory takes the position that in learning a word, we are taught (or discover for ourselves) a single or sometimes a couple of primary exemplars of the set of things the word refers to. When we learn the word "bird" we pick out robins, for instance, as exemplars of the set of birds with other birds deviating from it to varying degrees and in varying ways. Close to it would be cardinals and sparrows. Further away would be seagulls. At the remotest end would be penguins, perhaps. In my classes, when I would give the "red hammer" test, I might ask some students to name a type of bird and others to draw a bird. The word "robin" came up most frequently and drawings of a bird almost invariably showed a robin-like bird standing, rather than flying.


What the "red hammer" test proves is that "red" is the paradigmatic color for people (and not just for English speaking people) and "hammer" is the paradigmatic kind of tool. So, those who see the "red hammer" test as separating out two types of “minds” are being conned.

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47 Comments:

Anonymous Phil said...

But aren't you the "Scarlet Hammer"?

Do statistics really bear out the "red" and "hammer"responses? I'm not sure howI'd have responded, and I'm compromised now.

12:26 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I have seen nothing on "hammer" but there really aren't any good competitors to it given the wide variety of uses to which hammers are put (weapon, drive nails and pegs, make noise (gavel), pound things into submission like a coconut husk, etc. Red is the third most basic color, preceeded by white and black. This seems to be a linguistic/perceptual universal. People don't come up with "white" or "black" on these tests, I suspect, because we keep being drilled on the idea that they aren't color words (i.e., they have no hue).

1:18 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I thought of "orange screwdriver," it isn't because I was thinking of the bar after work. :) Actually, it's because of the similar quiz for which the answer is "carrot."

2:39 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, and a bunch of ppl I know, all said roughly the same thing.
"Blue Screwdriver" I definately fell into the "other 2%"

6:12 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

The question is: what would Freud say about your responses. :-)

7:20 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More importantly, don't think of a green elephant.

Now pass me my hammer.


Like the explanation. kinda weird how that works, but i guess we all have common frames of reference, some more rooted across cultures than others. The red hammer test would work pretty well in russia.

4:31 AM

 
Anonymous Alan said...

Thank you, LG. I took the 'test' yesterday and thought of red and hammer, but I knew it had nothing to do with being normal or not. I was hoping that somewhere on the net there was an explanation for the results. I find it easy to accept Prototype Theory as to why these words come to mind when prompted. It's facinating the way the human mind (and animal minds for that matter)works.

Thanks again.

4:46 PM

 
Anonymous BillyDSquires said...

When I lived in Europe, and was doing a mentalism act (read that "Pretend Precogniscience") I had an opening sequence where I "read" the audience members' minds through just such approaches as this.

I would think of a 2 digit number between 0 and 50; a flower, a playing card, and then I'd move to more complex scenarios as I would "project" my thoughts to the audience - and without fail they would be amazed at not only MY powers, but at their own previously unrecognized psychic abilities.

I did find that there are some variations among populations in these populational stereotypes, as have others. In London, there was variants from those in the north country, as well as various variations on the continent.

Anyway, I enjoy not only your bringing some of these devices, though not strictly linguistic in nature to peoples' attentions, but also yourn not so subtle using or demonstrating the very techniques and twists that you are writing about. Only a negative, thick as a McDonalds milkshake right wing born again racist nutjob would miss that! Or am I being naive? Ha ha

4:38 PM

 
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5:21 PM

 
Blogger Bugsy B. said...

I know I'm extremely late in adding a comment, since you had originally posted in April, but this is the first time I've seen your blog. The red hammer test was e-mailed to me, and the first thing I thought of was a yellow wrench. Why? I don't know.

And when I read the answer was supposed to be a red hammer, I just thought to myself "how silly," since I've never seen a red hammer. I simply chalked it up to another demonstration of my cultural difference to apple pie Americans. (I don't think I've seen a robin either, though, so I guess I wouldn't have expected this test to work on me.)

8:02 PM

 
Anonymous Dave Thacker said...

I enjoyed reading the insightful blog and the many comments that follow. I must admit that I too thought of a red hammer. I'm wondering if why people think of what they do is influenced by the "See Dick Run" era of our early eductions. Were (or are) the lesson books of that time depicting red hammers, blue screwdrivers and yellow saws? Is the hammer just the first primal understanding of a tool most of us first understood? Does doing the math get our language faculties in brown out mode? The word question appears and as our "language brain" is awaking we answer reverting back to our most basic memories? Dave Thacker, Ohio

12:13 PM

 
Blogger skindleshanks said...

There was a similar "trick" I encountered in junior high--it was a littl simpler, and involved reading off a list of numbers (5, 55, 555, etc) and then quickly naming a vegetable. The "correct" answer was carrot, and in my experience, about 70% of people got it.

At the time I thought that there must be some mental "link" between a carot and the number 5. Thanks for the explanation.

Incidentally, I have tried this with some of my students in Korean rather than English, and they never say carrot. Some of them say "cucumber," which in Korean sounds like the number 5. I guess one would need to change the preceding activity in order to find out what the representative vegetable was for Koreans.

8:44 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know how many of you have ever seen this original email. But, it was an email based on how easy it was for people to lie when they were not forced to look at the person they were talking too.

Years ago the first time I saw it, it was "supposed" to be from a college professor. He divided his class in half, when given the test orally 98 percent of the people said red hammer, when told to give an answer quickly. Yet when he gave it to the other half on paper with the words don't lie at the bottom plus the fact that 98 percent would say red hammer, he got totally different results. In fact the opposite 98 percent said or claimed to have gotten something totally different they didn't want to be part of the whole.

What he actually proved or thought he had proved I don't know I don't remember the whole email. I originally got it about 10 or 15 years ago so it's been around a long time, just stripped from the orignal I got back then. I do remember it had some cute little thing about giving it to your friends orally and if they give you a 2 percent answer only believe 2 percent of what they say and if you email it to them take the test results off and watch how many claim to be in the 2 percent margin so one again you'll know to only believe 2 percent of what they say. ;-)

2:49 AM

 
Blogger Atul Sabnis said...

This did make a very interesting read. for someone who is finicky about the use of certain words, in a completely incorrect context (they call it evolution), i liked "that the sorts of things that a word refers to cannot be characterized by a set of properties shared by all of the things it refers to".

Cheers!

3:18 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took this test last night after it was mailed to me by some friends. I thought I'd search online to find out more about it. Out of the 8 of my friends that took it all of them said red hammer including me.
Me and my friends assumed this was some sort of deep seated primal thought. As language guy states Red is apparently the most basic colour after black and white and a hammer is of course the most basic tool. Anyway I must go and hunt some mammoth with my trusty club. "UGH UGH!"

P.s. I also took a couple of the other tests. The one with carrot answer ( I said cabbage) and another where you had to add numbers then pick a number between 12 and 5. The 'correct' answer was apparently 7 however I chose 6. I haven't managed to find any others that work quite like this one!

10:51 PM

 
Blogger Smiley said...

:)

8:40 PM

 
Anonymous Annette - Melbourne said...

What a great test.... I work in an editorial office and we've got lots of 2 percenters here - green hammer being the most prevalent response.

On another note, I love the irony of a website about the use and abuse of language having a very obvious typo front and centre.

In the red section about enforcing the rules in comments.... 'There are sume who simply do not understand...' Did I really see some spelled s u m e???

Orange popsicle!

11:58 PM

 
Blogger tafinaf said...

Hello everyone... I like language guy. I think we think pretty similar (him and myself). Wonder if there is a change to pay him a visit in the next four weeks? I live in Hong Kong, but I will be in Cincinnati, Ohio most of the time...

Back to the red hammer test: I answered yellow hammer, and I was immediately thinking, why would anyone else come up with something else?

Here is my finding, please be free to argue its validity: I think the main reason (or at least one of the main reasons) might be PRONUNCIATION. When someone commands you to say something QUICK, I think our mind inevitably gets a "flap in the face" kind of surprise attack, to which it tries to respond as quickly as possible. And our muscles in our mouth (hundreds of them) need to formulate a word that is the easiest to utter. [I also agree that most people would exclude black and white, for reasons already mentioned.]

Hence, RED may win, because it's SHORT (in fact, the shortEST color word I know). I chose yellow, because it starts with y (j), and it's the easiest consonant to start with. I chose hammer too, probably PARTLY because it starts with h, and that's easier to pronounce than torch, wrench or screwdriver :-) Hammer is also closely associated in our mind with the general word "tool". In kids' textbooks it's often depicted as the synonym for tool...

Just my thought of ten pence :-)

Zsolt (www.stoic.ws: my personal website)

3:41 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Though I have not done the the tests in other languages, I suspect that the results would be similar with the answers depending on the culture. Red is a highly salient color for most cultures, right behind Black and White. So, I doubt that easiness of pronunciation would be involved. However you are right about the "slap effect." However my suggestion is that it would be a cognitive reflex rather than a neuromuscular one.

10:13 AM

 
Blogger y2k said...

concerning the "carrot" riddle -

A teacher orally asked the class several multiplication calculations, then asked everyone to write a vegetable. The explanation was, multiplication makes most people think of rabbits, thus, the association with "carrots".

I found this thread searching for a similar logical explanation for my choosing "red hammer".

2:56 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

I find the jump from multiplication to carrots via rabbits to be a bit implausible. Had the instruction been to name an animal, I could see how they might come up with rabbit. Still, the idea is interesting. Sadly, I no longer have students to use in a test to replicate this test.

8:35 AM

 
Blogger Julie said...

Hey, Language Guy, I need some insight here. I just took this test -- "green spade" here -- and then, without further explanation (other than the standard, here, try this test) I forwarded the E-mail to my mom. She was a "sage green trowel"!! How on earth do you explain that?! I have lived away from Mom for 20+ years. I am still scratching my head over this one ...

12:23 AM

 
Blogger Mu3az said...

Well! I have not find out yet any logical explanation regarding this yet. my answer was a damn red screwdriver! to be honest with you, i have thought of a red something! and i didnt really know what that something was! so i picked up a screwdriver :D. Thanks for the nice blog

6:22 PM

 
Blogger Charles Lo said...

Hello, tafinaf! I am from Hong Kong too and I too think of yellow hammer. Even more interesting, I did the chinese translated version of this "test".

2:44 AM

 
Blogger Sarah said...

I don't know if this works for everyone but it did in my office

Where the test says:

At the end of this message, you are asked a question...

Insert in BLUE font the following:

Do not scroll down to see the question.
But once you are done the math problems, answer the question.

Then continue with the rest of the instructions (Answer it immediately. Don't stop and think about it. ....)

Blue Hammer is the answer

2:42 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

You have demonstrated why experimentalists not only take great care in writing their queries, they will often have someone other than themselves administer the exam.

This is a real problem in doing polls. How you state the question largely determines the answer you will get.

11:05 AM

 
Blogger colleen said...

"Answer it immediately. Don't STOP and think about it."

Is it just me or are 'Stop' signs the world over Red in colour?? We are told to stop so we think red.

And the hammer is the most basic of tools. Or do our cave man ancestors remember their blood spattered femur bones as a red hammer?
Just a few extra things to contemplate. Beaner

9:22 PM

 
Blogger Robert said...

I chose carrot also but I am confident that my choice was determined by the increasing length of the string and its similarity to the length of the carrot. I would understand the cucumber also can be explained by this criteria.

thank you.

6:49 PM

 
Blogger Allison said...

When I took the red hammer test, I got a blue sledgehammer.

4:36 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

That is just plain weird, if you don't mind my saying so.

4:55 PM

 
Blogger vac said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:27 AM

 
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8:11 AM

 
Blogger rick said...

colleen..has the best explanation yet...i think that was awesome..stop sign, red and hammer basic tool already thinking red and blood and hammer.

but i said blue screwdriver..

10:08 PM

 
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2:47 AM

 
Blogger Kaneda said...

When I did the "red hammer" test cold I thought red pencil, then decided pencil didn't fit the tool requirement and changed to hammer.

1:28 PM

 
Blogger Tim said...

Blue calculator. Go figure.

10:55 PM

 
Blogger katja said...

Black wrench!!

9:41 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Is that code for "Evil Wench," katja?

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12:18 AM

 
Blogger Amrit Ray said...

I thought of "Blue" and "Photoshop". Quite strange right? Web Designer Web Hosting

3:24 PM

 
Blogger suparna said...

little confused but yes i do think so.
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6:00 AM

 
Blogger jason said...

I thought of a blue screwdriver.but i wonder if in the instance of answering
the question i modified it.i swear i thought of black white landed on blue
then thought of a screwdriver probably because it's the tool i'm most familiar with using recently.i
haven't picked up a hammer in a while.it's all quite intresting.

4:18 AM

 
Blogger Cengiz said...

It seems that by giving a specified task (in this case, mathematical operations) to the brain one can instruct it to do/think something specified, appearently temporarily.

This test can be compared by doing the following:
-changing the numbers
-use other arguments like chain of words, "random" questions or colors
What happens after each test?

It will probably give different results and I'm sure it has already been tested - by people who "leaked" this hammer test.

So my hypothesis is: this experience shows simply that brain can be instructed by external intervention. This explains maybe how TV, books and music influences us (thus showing how important it is to select such things)... It can be used for bad (subliminal advertising or similar) or for good things (like language learning or enhancing skills etc.), it is up to the user's conscience...

8:15 AM

 
Blogger Praachi said...

Royal Purple, Wrench.
That is strange.

Now what is the abnormality that I possess? I'm getting a tad bit worried.

9:18 AM

 
Blogger eroltolstoy said...

sorry to interrupt. but there is a bit of confusion here. I am turkish and we have the same test with some arithmetic sums instead of questions or words. the result is still red hammer ( at least in my case and my friends)

10:07 AM

 

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