20 November 2007

Of Spam and Psychology

I've come across this “chain letter quiz” more than once, usually sent by an acquaintance in a mass email. I have analyzed it here to show how its apparent "psychic" trickery actually operates. This is a good example of confirmation bias, where a reader "counts the hits, not the misses," making the test seem accurate when it actually gets nothing right that cannot be accounted for through basic psychology.

Here is one version of this letter. I've lifted this example from an old email (I have changed none of the spelling, capitalization, or punctuation—grit your teeth and try to get through):
Your instincts has its advantages all the time . . . This is freaky as anything . . . DO NOT CHEAT (You'll will kick yourself later) BUT NO CHEATING! This has a funny/spooky outcome. Don't read ahead . . . just do it in order! It takes about three minutes . . . it's worth a try

First . . . get a pen and paper.

When you actually choose names, make sure it's people you actually know and go with your first instinct.

Scroll down one line at a time . . . and don't read ahead or you'll ruin it!

1. First, write the numbers 1 through 11 in a column.

2.Then, beside numbers 1 and 2, write down any two numbers you want.

3. Beside the 3 and 7, write down the names of members of the opposite sex.

NO LOOKING AHEAD . . . OR IT WON"T TURN OUT RIGHT!

4. Write anyone's name (like friends or family. . . .) in the 4th, 5th, and 6th spots.

5. Write down four song titles in 8,9,10, and 11.

GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT PEOPLE!!!!

6. Finally, make a wish. And now the key for the . . . . .

1. You must email (the number in space 2) this letter .

2. The person in space 3 is the one that you love.

3. The person in 7 is one you like but can't work out.

4. You care most about the person you put in 4.

5. The person you name in number 5 is the one who knows you very well.

6. The person you name in 6 is your lucky star.

7. The song in 8 is the song that matches with the person in number 3.

8. The title in 9 is the song for the person in 7.

9. The tenth space is the song that tells you most about YOUR mind.

10. and 11 is the song telling you how you feel about life.

this is so accurate NOW . . . email this bulletin within the hour . . . IF you do . . . your wish will come true . . . If you don't it will become the opposite u must send this email in 3 hours!!!! GOOD LUCK
Uhm, "you'll will"? Never mind . . .

Before I get into the claims, all you need to know about the true nature of this email is contained in answer key #1 ("email this to __ number of people") and the boilerplate chain-letter conclusion, warning of negative karmic consequences if you don't follow instructions. In other words, this letter only exists to trick you into spamming your friends. Don't do it.

On to the analysis:

To help explain, I wrote down my own answers (I did not skip ahead to look, as requested) and honestly tried to just have names, song titles, and numbers pop into my head. After all, didn't the quiz shout at me to GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT PEOPLE? (What are "instinct people"? Are they similar to "extinct people," like the Hittites?)

#1 and #2 are meaningless, of course. In fact, no explanation for the number provided for answer #1 is ever given. Perhaps this email had it lopped off accidentally? The answer for #2 is merely instructions on how many people to spam with this. No hits here.

Answer #3 is the "secret weapon" of this quiz. If the quiz can convince you that the person of the opposite sex written down here is actually your true love, it wins. You will fall for the rest of the answers regardless of their accuracy. Of course, if asked to list two people of the opposite sex (the quiz assumes heterosexuality) the chance is extremely high that the first person listed will be the one you are either involved with or interested in. Who else will spring to mind so fast? Confirmation bias leaps in immediately: if you are interested in someone, being told that they are the person you love will make you feel darn great; if you are already with them, you will say, "damn, the quiz is right! Spooky!" Either way, you count it as a "hit" even though the answer is a psychological safe bet.

My answer? I'm not telling you her name, but I am interested in her. However, I know this isn't a hit. Not remotely. It's a near-certainty of human nature.

The person in #7 is "the one you like but can't work out." I'm unsure exactly what this means, but since this is the second of two opposite sex names, the probability is high that he/she is 1) someone else you like, but not as much as #3; 2) a former relationship. Either way, the answer of "you like, can't work out" sounds like a hit.

The quiz flopped on my end, however, since I listed my Grandmother Ruth for #7. She died in September, and this last weekend was her birthday, so she has been on my mind a great deal. Perhaps some people might call this a hit, since I can't work anything out with someone who is dead, but honestly . . . a full out, complete "miss" from my perspective.

It should come as no surprise that the person listed in #4 is someone you care about. Note the wording of the question: "Write anyone's name (like friends or family. . . .)" This immediately makes the quiz taker focus on people close to him, people he likes.

I put my sister's name here. Is she the person I "care the the most about"? I love her, of course, but I love all my family, so I resent the quiz's presumption that I will single one out. Many would call this a "hit," but it's psychologically probable and not spooky or freaky, etc.

So the person in #5 knows me very well, huh? I have no proof of this, since it's not talking about what I know. Again, this is probably a relative or a close friend, so the chance seems good that this person knows the quiz taker well. But so what?

I put my brother's name here, which makes sense after my sister. But my brother knows me as well as my sister, so is this any answer at all? Any relative or friend placed here would "know me well." Useless.

Every version of this quiz has the meaningless "lucky star" designation, as we see here with #6. What does this mean? Anything at all? No, it's an ambiguous phrase where the reader is supposed to fill in the meaning for it, thus giving a "hit."

Oh dear, oh dear . . . even given the senselessness of "lucky star," my own answer makes no sense whatsoever. Right after I wrote down my brother and sister, one of my co-workers, Efrain, walked past my desk. Since his name jumped to mind I wrote it down. (Just following instructions, quiz. "Instinct" and all that.) I hardly know Efrain and rarely talk to him; he's another guy at work. "Lucky Star"? Miss, miss, miss, miss, a thousand times a miss!

Now we get to the songs. Did you list a love song for #8? I'll bet you did! (And how many love songs are there, or songs with titles you can interpret as love songs?) The quiz thinks you will, because it matches (gasp) the person in #3! Again, an obvious psychological tactic.

I plunked down "All You Need Is Love." Admittedly, by this point I had guessed exactly what the quiz was trying to pull.

The quiz hopes the #9 song hopes you plunked down is another love ditty to match up the failed romance of #7. Same tactic again.

Whooops. I put "Detroit Rock City." Which supposedly matches my Grandmother. Who never listened to rock music in her life. And never went to Detroit. Whatever.

Song #10 supposedly tells you something about your mind. Of course it does, you thought of the song title. Whadda stretch.

I put "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Which does tell me something about my mind: at this point, I was pulling out names just to make the quiz look idiotic.

Finally, the #11 song tells you about how you view life. By this time, if the list has suckered you with enough vague emotional appeals (did it have you by #3?), it doesn't matter what this answers is. You'll take it as a hit.

Unless, of course, you answered "Midnight Shift," like I did. ("If you see ol' Annie why don't you give her a lift? / Annie's been working on the midnight shift . . .") Which doesn't mean anything. I don't work the midnight shift and know nobody named Annie. Great dance song, however.

Right now, somewhere out there in cyberspace, someone is probably emailing this to his poor friends, thinking, "Wow, it's spooky how well this works!"

Yes, spooky how well spam can convince people to propagate it.