When my friend and Google Branding Authority Kerwin Rae posted this image to his Facebook page with the exhortation that we discover which of us is smarter than a 5th grader, I knew we would be in for an interesting set of comments!  I knew this because there have been similar posts on Facebook in the past with similar types of mathematical questions, and invariably there are more people who fall for the trap and give the wrong answer than there are people who remember their basic mathematics from school and get the right answer (for those wondering, for those not quite sure, and for those completely positive that they know the answer, it’s at the end of this article complete with the explanation; and yes, it is definitely a cunning trap!).

And sure enough, this time did not disappoint, there was an interesting selection of different answers given, the majority not being the correct one (some of the methods used to calculate answers were genuinely and sincerely impressive in their ingenuity it has to be said).

However, reading through the answers on this and other similar Facebook posts, what I found most interesting to observe was not whether the answers were right or wrong; no, what I found most interesting and illuminating was the reactions of people to the different answers, especially when their answers were questioned (these observations are an amalgamation of Kerwin’s thread and many others over the past couple of months, they did not all appear in the same thread!)

  1. There were people who replied that they had thought that they were right, but were now not so sure and sought explanation for the different answer.
  2. There were people who laughed at the people giving the correct answer.
  3. There were people who repeated that their own answer was the only possible answer and dismissing everyone else as being wrong.
  4. There were people who became openly abusive to anyone suggesting a different answer, pouring scorn upon their intelligence levels or educational achievements.

There were some other types of response, but these tend to be the 4 most common ones.
Remember, these are the responses from people who had given their answer and believed their answer was the correct one. These are people who were confident in their own answer (regardless of whether it was the right answer or the wrong answer).

Now, it has been said (and generally found to be true) that how we do one thing is how we do everything. So if, as many in this instance were, we are so dismissive of others for getting a ‘simple sum’ wrong, to the point that we are happy to ridicule them or abuse them but not to listen to them and explore the question, then where else in life do we react in that way? Where else in life might you be so confident in your position that you brook no dissent from that position and will even lash-out at those holding different views rather than extending the hand of common enquiry and exploring the issue together, each setting out their case?

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What might we be inadvertently revealing about ourselves in the way in which we react here?

And for those laughing, pouring scorn or being abusive and hostile, could there be a better way to respond to differences of opinion even though you ‘know‘ with absolute certainty that you are right and they are wrong?

It probably depends upon what you feel is the best outcome.  Do you want to ridicule your ‘opponent’, make them feel worthless for getting something so simple wrong (even though it may well be they who are right and you who are wrong, let’s remember!), and sit back smugly believing yourself to be right?

Or, might you wish instead to help the other person to understand why you believe they are wrong and you are right, to help them to increase their level of knowledge, and to do so in a friendly and constructive manner?  After all, just suppose it turns out that it is you who is wrong and they who is right, how would you want them to treat you?  Ridicule?  Or support?

Looking back at them carefully, which of those 4 approaches do you feel would be the most helpful in reaching a common consensus and helping the other person to see how you got your answer? Which one would be most likely to make you seek to work with the other person to help both to find out the definitive answer once and for all?
For the vast majority of us, having someone laugh at us, dismissing us out of hand, or worse yet being openly abusive to us for having a different answer, would simply harden our own position and not encourage us to explore or debate.  It does not help either side to increase their understanding, it does not resolve any potential conflict; all it does is risk generating or increasing ill-feeling.

Whereas the first reply is a much more constructive approach, opening up the way for both sides to discuss and explore and examine the point and come to a common understanding on the correct answer.  After all, none of us can possibly know everything with absolute accuracy, and opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have made an incorrect assumption is a major step towards enabling us to gain a far greater insight and understanding; if we were right all along, then we have helped another fellow human to increase their understanding, whereas if we were wrong then we now have had the opportunity to correct our misbelief and how can we possibly not be better off as a result?

It really is a win-win situation, where the sum total of human knowledge is increased; now that has got to be a far better result than breeding resentment and risking some remaining convinced of the wrong answer, hasn’t it!

So, next time you know with absolute confidence and certainty that you are right and the other person is wrong, reach out with a friendly hand and offer to explore together the issue, examining all the information, to help them to learn and understand the answer whilst being open to the possibility that the one learning will be you.  When you do so, whether you were right or wrong at the start doesn’t matter, for by the end both of you will be right, and no animosity will have been caused.

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For those wondering, the correct answer is 7.  Not 3 or 12 but 7.

Why? Doesn’t anything multiplied by 0 become 0?
Well, yes it does. But the important point is the order in which the operations are carried out. You do multiplications and divisions FIRST, and only then do you do addition and subtraction.
So in this case, we calculate the multiplication first, which is 5 × 0, which becomes 0.

Taking it one step at a time, we get
9 – 5 + 5 × 0 + 3
⇒ 9 – 5 + 0 + 3
⇒ 4 + 0 + 3
⇒ 4 + 3
⇒ 7

If you got 3 then you fell into the little trap of not doing multiplication first – remember BODMAS or PEDMAS (or any of various similar acronyms) from mathematics at school!
For those still not convinced, check the Key Stage 3 revision notes on this very subject.