Sunday, 25 September 2011

Our survey said...

" #interpretation #fun #context #cognition "

Whilst compiling material for some other work I stumbled across some old Family Fortunes and Family Feud 'funny/strange' answers on YouTube*.

I've recently being doing a lot of thinking around framing, ref [5], and the problems it can cause and solve and I started thinking about different causes for the unexpected answers.

For communication analysis I use two types of exercise, (1) frame analysis and (2) word and meaning substitution.

Frame analysis
  • What are the aspects that might be important to each person involved in the communication? This usually revolves around situational context of either the one asking the question (presenting the problem) or the one answering the question (presenting a solution). Here there is scope for a range of cognitive and interpretation mistakes.
Word and meaning substitution
  • A well-known example of this is the "Mary had a little lamb" exercise, described in "Are you lights on", ref [1], and is a demonstration of how changing the emphasis of a word in a sentence, or replacing a word with a similar meaning (from a dictionary or thesaurus), can change the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, if both parties in the communication intend different word emphasis (in word placement or interpretation) then there is a possibility of confusion.
So, what can appear as confusing or even amusing answers can, with the right perspective, have a certain logic. In the list** below I've made an attempt at finding the perspective behind the answer, in red.

The questions are typically prefixed with "We asked 100 people to name..."

Q: Something a husband and wife should have separate of
A: Parents
Logical answer(?) but maybe not along the intended lines of the questioner.

Q: A planet you recognize just by looking at a picture of it
A: The Moon
Confusion of definition of planet with 'celestial body' (something in space with an orbit)

Q: A month of spring
A: Summer
Slip of the ear, of->after(?), ref [4]

Q: A word that starts with the letter Q
A: Cute
Q. Name a part of the body beginning with 'N'
A. Knee
Phonetic interpretation

Q: The movie where John Travolta gave his most memorable performance
A: The John Travolta Biography
'Most memorable performance' to the questioner had a potentially different meaning. To the answerer either it was interpretted as a film where he featured the most, or he wanted to give an amusing answer.

Q: Something you wouldn't use if it was dirty
A: Toilet paper
Amusing and logical answer(?)

Q: A signer of the Declaration of Independence
A: Thomas Edison
Slip of the tongue, specifically noun substitution, ref [4]

Q: Something that comes in twelves
A: Dozens 
Could be logical interpretation but not something the questioner was intending(?)

Q: A sophisticated city.
A: Japan
Misinterpretation (or even slip of the ear) of city for destination.

Q: A kind of bear
A: Papa Bear
Recency effect(?) - had recently been reading or exposed to children's stories (?)

Q. Name a number you have to memorise
A. 7
Misinterpretation of 'memorise' as 'favourite' or 'memorable'(?)

Q. Name something in the garden that's green
A. Shed
Context-specific to the answerer(?)

Q. Name something that flies that doesn't have an engine
A. A bicycle with wings
'Logical' and specific answer - but the questioner could have maybe clarified the question with a 'commonly known item'.
Or, recency effect - flugtag, ref [6].

Q. Name something you might be allergic to
A. Skiing
'Alergic' -> 'don't like'(?)

Q. Name a famous bridge
A. The bridge over troubled waters
Interpreted as 'something well-known with bridge in it'(?)

Q. Name something you do in the bathroom
A. Decorate
Specific to the answerer's context.

Q. Name an animal you might see at the zoo
A. A dog
Generics. Potential that the answerer has not interpreted the the question as 'generally seen and residing in the zoo'.

Q. Name a kind of ache
A. Fillet 'O' Fish (?)
Brain-freeze or 'slip of the ear'(?)

Q. Name a food that can be brown or white
A. Potato
Answerer framed the question as a food which could be presented as brown or white(?)

Q. Name a famous Scotsman
A. Jock
'Slip of the ear' -> 'a common nickname'(?)

Q. Name a non-living object with legs
A. Plant
Maybe thinking of a plant on a plant stand(?)

Q. Name a domestic animal
A. Leopard
Misinterpretation of 'domestic'(?)

Q. Name a way of cooking fish
A. Cod
'way' misinterpreted as 'type'(?)

Analysis Notes
  • Context - some answers are specific to the answerer and not the questioner. Example traps might be (1) Understanding and interpretation, (2) Word association problems or (3) Relating everything to ones own experience or circumstances.
  • Recency effects, ref [3] - the interpretation associated with a word was used in a different context, giving a skewed answer. In testing this occasionally results in skewed emphasis of the risk determination - see tester framing problems in ref [5].
  • Skipping and changing words in sentences - to actually hear a different question - sometimes grouped under 'slips of the ear'. In testing this might result in an incorrect solution application, similar to framing problems but can also be 'straightforward' slips that result in some faulty analysis - missing some key input parameter for example.
  • Other framing effects can be caused by the previous question, previous answer or even some realisation that a previous answer was wrong/silly and so inducing more stress in the answerer.
  • Stress can mean that sometimes when you're trying to react you don't actually listen to the whole message or question. This can be time pressure or other stresses. Be aware of this potential problem.
  • Anchoring effects, ref [2] - focusing on a word and giving an association with that word (rather than focusing on the whole question). In testing this typically results in confirmatory testing.
  • Generic statements can create confusion. These are generic statements as part of the answers - this is where the question can be confused between giving an example of a specific kind and categorizing the answer into a grouping. Opposite of the answerer-specific problem. More on this in another post...
  • Don't rule out brain-freezes either - these can be multi-word substitution or paragrammatism, ref [4], which result in nonsense responses.
And finally...

This is a good exercise and quite instructive for those working in software testing - it's a good illustration of how what might be seen as an obvious or simple answer can actually diverge from the expectations of the stakeholder or even customer.

Be alert for not just for confusing messages but also the potential for confusing answers. In this way you might know when to re-affirm your interpretation back to the stakeholder or customer.


* If you want to see the clips you can search youtube for "family fortunes answers" or "family feud answers" or "game show stupid answers".
** Lists compiled from

[1] Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is (Gause and Weinberg, Dorset House, 1990)
[2] Anchoring effects:
[3] Recency effects:
[4] Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean (Erard, Panteon, 2007)

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of when I was a kid - I didn't understand Garfield comics were meant to be funny, so I went through the book and wrote an explanation of the situation and it's misinterpretation by the character on each comic.

    It didn't make Garfield comics any funnier though.