I read a description of this phenomenon in a book (can't remember which one).

Basically, if a problem is presented in a dry, academic format, it's MUCH more difficult to solve than a problem presented in a real-world format.

The example from the book was something like this:

Problem presented in academic format - 10% of people are able to solve it:

You have 3 cards. One side of each card has letters, the other side has numbers. 2 cards are showing - one shows an A, the other shows a 3. How many cards do you have to turn over in order to figure out if all of the numbers are even?

Problem presented in real-world format - 95% of people are able to solve it:

There are 3 people in a bar. One of them is drinking a coke. Another one is a senior citizen. How many people's ID's do you need to check, to see if they're of legal drinking age?

This isn't exactly right, but it was along these lines. You'd remember if you read it as well, it was a very striking and very believable difference in people's ability to solve the exact same problem (logically) but just in different formats.

Can somebody remind me of where I found this, and what it's called, maybe the book it came from or something?

  • $\begingroup$ Does drinking coke in a bar imply you are doing it because you cannot legally drink alcohol? $\endgroup$
    – dtech
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 18:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @dtech The implication is that if you are drinking coke, your age does not need to be known because coke is not age-restricted. The presumption is that there is no age requirement to merely be inside the bar. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ Just needed to make sure "drinking coke at a bar" is not some colloquial allegory. $\endgroup$
    – dtech
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ I might be overthinking it, but is the 3-rd person implied to be the bartender, and what if that "seemingly senior" citizen has progeria? The context is just to loose to have one answer. $\endgroup$
    – dtech
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ I understand your exact phrasing might not correspond to the original, but the 'academic' (arguably just 'card' phrasing; what exactly is academic about it?) is much more ambiguous. What 'state' is the third card in? Do we assume it is hidden somewhere and 'turning it over' means either seeing the letter or number, potentially having to turn over again in case the letter shows first? This is different from the 'bar' phrasing. So, would be interesting to see the original phrasings if the reference is found. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 9:37

1 Answer 1


Pretty sure you're talking about the Wason selection task, and the bar variation is generally attributed to Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (1992).


  • $\begingroup$ Could you include the exact experiment phrasing in your answer? Would be interesting to see how much they deviate /overlap with what the OP recalled (and to prevent possible incorrect descriptions being linked to the experiments you cite). $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 9:40

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