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That deceptive JLSC ‘bat and ball question’

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Last week, I was not so much taken aback by the leak to the media of the exam given by the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC) to five prospective judges, including former chief magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar, as I was by some of the rather unfortunate comments that emanated therefrom, relative to one of the questions in section A of the exam. And whilst I hold no brief for the JLSC and/or its head, Chief Justice Ivor Archie, but on the contrary, wholeheartedly share the view of learned attorney Martin Daly, SC, that the JLSC should, at the very least, as he put it: “beg pardon” for their recent huge administrative faux pas, I believe that it is important and in the interest of balance and fairness that I add my two cents (no pun intended) to the conversation.

The question to which I refer reads as follows: “A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” However, I hasten to caution, don’t let its veneer of “primary-school” simplicity deceive you. As it is noteworthy that this is the first of three questions of the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a three-item measure introduced into the (peer-reviewed) journal literature by Prof Shane Frederick of Yale University’s School of Management in 2005, in his paper Cognitive Reflection and Decision Making. Prof Frederick is considered an authority on decision-making and intertemporal choice, time preferences and discount functions and has authored several papers with other scholars including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of Princeton University.

The CRT is designed to measure “cognitive reflection” or the ability or disposition to resist reporting the response that first comes to mind that is incorrect and to engage in further reflection that leads to the correct response. Studies have shown that the CRT is a more potent predictor of performance on a wide sample of tasks from the literature rather than other measures of cognitive ability, thinking dispositions and executive functioning.

Returning to the bat and ball question, the research indicates that when people answer this question, many of them show a characteristic that is common to many reasoning errors: they behave like cognitive misers. They give the first response that comes to mind, which is ten cents, without thinking further and realising that this answer cannot be correct. As the bat would then have to cost $1.10, and the total cost would then be $1.20 rather than the required $1.10. Most people often do not think deeply enough to realise their error, and cognitive ability or “being bright” is no guarantee against making the error. In fact, in a study conducted at Princeton, which measured time preferences using both real and hypothetical rewards, Prof Frederick found that large numbers of highly select university students at MIT, Princeton, and Harvard were cognitive misers. More than 50 per cent of them responded that the cost was ten cents, rather than the correct answer of five cents.

The bottom line is that whilst the three questions on the CRT appear relatively “easy” in the sense that their solution is easily understood when explained, the challenge of reaching the correct answer often requires the suppression of an erroneous answer that springs “impulsively” to mind. Accordingly, one can well appreciate the applicability of such a test in helping to determine the suitability of any individual aspiring to high office, particularly that of a judge. Moreover, I am persuaded that CRT’s application should be extended to include ALL politicians as a prerequisite for determining their suitability to hold public office. As this may be one sure way of getting them to ensure that their brain is engaged before putting their mouth in gear. I trust that the preceding brings some clarity to the issue, and a Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and fathers-to-be.

Citizen Peter Permell