An Association Game

Here’s an association or riddle game that Mika and I created last night that I found interesting.

  • Give a player a list of three random, dissimilar objects (e.g., pancakes, manhole covers, and condominiums). Tell them that you are thinking of some quality or feature shared by all three and ask them to tell you what it might be.
  • After letting them think for some time, or even after supplying answers, tell the player that you lied and that you didn’t have an answer in mind. In fact, the goal of the game is to come up with any and all associations.

Most people I’ve talked feel that the problem becomes easier after one realizes that there isn’t a correct answer. Of course, the strategy that the second stage invites (thinking of anything without the idea that the answer might be right or wrong) is exactly what the player should have been doing from the beginning. Why don’t we? In what situations might we be more creative problem solvers if we pretended that there isn’t a correct answer?

9 Replies to “An Association Game”

  1. “Why don’t we?”

    Mostly social reasons. There is a largish minority of people who are in fact open to creative problem solving. The majority though, divides into two groups: people who have a right answer in mind when they ask you a question, and people who very strongly believe that they don’t, but do anyway. This second tendency shows up particularly strongly in those funky little interviews people like to do for programming jobs. The second tendency has a particularly nasty variant in which the person in question believes and announces themself as the most open minded person in the room, in fact, the most open minded person they know. And yet, they want you to say what they want to hear anyway. And when one doesn’t, one is obviously close minded and narrow in one’s thinking.

    Hence, a tendency in people to believe that the other party has a right answer in mind even when they say they don’t, and even when they produce a reasonably convincing statement that they don’t, and thus a tendency to seek for said disguised right answer.

  2. I don’t know if you were aware of this, but that technique is how many, many single-panel cartoons for magagines in the 1930s to 1970s were developed.

    Neat to see it applied to technology, though.

  3. Cainmark: I didn’t know that about single panel cartoons. That’s very interesting!

    Mike: I have met Luis on a couple occasion and saw his thesis defense some time ago. I don’t think my idea is very similar to his — at least not for what I had intended it.

  4. I bet that when we expect a right answer we only keep track of our current best answer, when otherwise we’d consider all possible solutions equally. With fewer concepts at hand, fewer connections are activated and there’s less variety in the new solutions we generate.

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