433 - The-98–2–Email

If you are unaware of the 98%/2% email, you might want to go here to try it out, otherwise the remainder of this post will spoil it for you.

About a month ago, my brother forwarded me an email with a few mathematical questions and then a question that asked you to quickly think of a tool and a colour. According to the email, 98% of people will come up with red and hammer. I did this, got the red hammer result and was mildly surprised.

I didn’t think much more about it until this week when I was asked again by someone at work. Around half the people at work got red hammer, with about 75% getting either red or hammer. As it was getting to the end of the day, I decided to have a look around to find out why people come up with red hammer. Google has several results on the subject; here’s a summary of my findings, as someone is probably interested in it.

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that it’s nothing to do with the type of mind you have — as the email going round implies — there is probably a more straight forward reason

There is a theory called Prototype theory, Wikipedia entry, which says that, when learning language, there are stereotypical examples used when explaining concepts. These examples stick in your mind, often coming to the forefront of your mind when asked for examples of the concept, given no prior priming for other examples.

In the specific case of this email, the mathematical questions are there to try and clear your mind before asking about the tool and colour, meaning that you are more likely to come up with prototypical examples. The colour “red” and the tool “hammer” are each likely to be one of the first and most common examples of tool and colour you would have come across as a child. Therefore, prototype theory suggests, they are the ones you are most likely to produce when asked to do so as quickly as possible.

The ratios of people producing red hammer at work to those not producing it would seem to suggest that the 98%/2% is rather over-stating the likeliness of coming up with that combination, but the extreme numbers are more likely to get you to forward the email on; I guess a little social engineering is happening there. However, it does seem that red and hammer are the most common responses, so I guess there is something in it.

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