Detecting Absurdities

PROCEDURE. Say to the child: "_I am going to read a sentence which has

something foolish in it, some nonsense. I want you to listen carefully

and tell me what is foolish about it._" Then read the sentences, rather

slowly and in a matter-of-fact voice, saying after each: "_What is

foolish about that?_" The sentences used are the following:--

(a) "_A man said: 'I know a road from my house to the city which

is downhill all the way to the city and downhill all the way

back home.'_"

(b) "_An engineer said that the more cars he had on his train the

faster he could go._"

(c) "_Yesterday the police found the body of a girl cut into

eighteen pieces. They believe that she killed herself._"

(d) "_There was a railroad accident yesterday, but it was not very

serious. Only forty-eight people were killed._"

(e) "_A bicycle rider, being thrown from his bicycle in an

accident, struck his head against a stone and was instantly

killed. They picked him up and carried him to the hospital,

and they do not think he will get well again._"

Each should ordinarily be answered within thirty seconds. If the child

is silent, the sentence should be repeated; but no other questions or

suggestions of any kind are permissible. Such questions as "_Could the

road be downhill both ways?_" or, "_Do you think the girl could have

killed herself?_" would, of course, put the answer in the child's mouth.

It is even best to avoid laughing as the sentence is read.

Owing to the child's limited power of expression it is not always easy

to judge from the answer given whether the absurdity has really been

detected or not. In such cases ask him to explain himself, using some

such formula as: "_I am not sure I know what you mean. Explain what you

mean. Tell me what is foolish in the sentence I read._" This usually

brings a reply the correctness or incorrectness of which is more

apparent, while at the same time the formula is so general that it

affords no hint as to the correct answer. Additional questions must be

used with extreme caution.

SCORING. Passed if the absurdity is detected in _four out of the five_

statements. The following are samples of satisfactory and unsatisfactory


(a) _The road downhill_

_Satisfactory._ "If it was downhill to the city it would be

uphill coming back." "It can't be downhill both directions."

"That could not be." "That is foolish. (Explain.) Because it

must be uphill one way or the other." "That would be a funny

road. (Explain.) No road can be like that. It can't be downhill

both ways."

_Unsatisfactory._ "Perhaps he took a little different road

coming back." "I guess it is a very crooked road." "Coming back

he goes around the hill." "The man lives down in a valley." "The

road was made that way so it would be easy." "Just a road. I

don't see anything foolish." "He should say, 'a road which


(b) _What the engineer said_

_Satisfactory._ "If he has more cars he will go slower." "It is

the other way. If he wants to go faster he mustn't have so many

cars." "The man didn't mean what he said, or else it was a slip

of the tongue." "That's the way it would be if he was going

downhill." "Foolish, because the cars don't help pull the

train." "He ought to say _slower_, not _faster_."

_Unsatisfactory._ "A long train is nicer." "The engine pulls

harder if the train has lots of cars." "That's all right. I

suppose he likes a big train." "Nothing foolish; when I went to

the city I saw a train that had lots of cars and it was going

awfully fast." "He should have said, 'the faster I can _run_.'"

(c) _The girl who was thought to have killed herself_

_Satisfactory._ "She could not have cut herself into eighteen

pieces." "She would have been dead before that." "She might have

cut two or three pieces off, but she couldn't do the rest."

(Laughing) "Well, she may have killed herself; but if she did

it's a sure thing that some one else came along after and

chopped her up." "That policeman must have been a fool.

(Explain.) To think that she could chop herself into eighteen


_Unsatisfactory._ "_Think_ that she killed herself; they _know_

she did." "They can't be sure. Some one may have killed her."

"It was a foolish girl to kill herself." "How can they tell who

killed her?" "No girl would kill herself unless she was crazy."

"It ought to read: 'They think that she committed suicide.'"

(d) _The railroad accident_

_Satisfactory._ "That was very serious." "I should like to know

what you would call a serious accident!" "You could say it was

not serious if two or three people were killed, but

forty-eight,--that is serious."

_Unsatisfactory._ "It was a foolish mistake that made the

accident." "They couldn't help it. It was an accident." "It

might have been worse." "Nothing foolish; it's just sad."

(e) _The bicycle rider_

_Satisfactory._ "How could he get well after he was already

killed?" "Why, he's already dead." "No use to take a dead man to

the hospital." "They ought to have taken him to a grave-yard!"

_Unsatisfactory._ "Foolish to fall off of a bicycle. He should

have known how to ride." "They ought to have carried him home.

(Why?) So his folks could get a doctor." "He should have been

more careful." "Maybe they can cure him if he isn't hurt very

bad." "There's nothing foolish in that."

REMARKS. The detection of absurdities is one of the most ingenious and

serviceable tests of the entire scale. It is little influenced by

schooling, and it comes nearer than any other to being a test of

that species of mother-wit which we call common sense. Like the

"comprehension questions," it may be called a test of judgment, using

this term in the colloquial and not in the logical sense. The stupid

person, whether depicted in literature, proverb, or the ephemeral joke

column, is always (and justly, it would seem) characterized by a huge

tolerance for absurd contradictions and by a blunt sensitivity for the

fine points of a joke. Intellectual discrimination and judgment are

inferior. The ideas do not cross-light each other, but remain relatively

isolated. Hence, the most absurd contradictions are swallowed, so to

speak, without arousing the protest of the critical faculty. The latter,

indeed, is only a name for the tendency of intellectually irreconcilable

elements to clash. If there is no clash, if the elements remain apart,

it goes without saying that there will be no power of criticism.

The critical faculty begins its development in the early years and

strengthens _pari passu_ with the growing wealth of inter-associations

among ideas; but in the average child it is not until the age of about

10 years that it becomes equal to tasks like those presented in this

test. Eight-year intelligence hardly ever scores more than two or three

correct answers out of five. By 12, the critical ability has so far

developed that the test is nearly always passed. It is an invaluable

test for the higher grades of mental deficiency.

As a test of the critical powers Binet first used "trap questions"; as,

for example, "Is snow red or black?" The results were disappointing, for

it was found that owing to timidity, deference, and suggestibility

normal children often failed on such questions. Deference is more marked

in normal than in feeble-minded children, and it is because of the

influence of this trait that it is necessary always to forewarn the

subject that the sentence to be given contains nonsense.

Binet located the test in year XI of the 1908 scale, but changed it to

year X in 1911. Goddard and Kuhlmann retain it in year XI. The large

majority of the statistics, including those of Goddard and Kuhlmann,

warrant the location of the test in year X. Not all have used the same

absurdities, and these have not been worded uniformly. Most have

required three successes out of five, but Bobertag and Kuhlmann require

three out of four; Bobertag's procedure is also different in that he

does not forewarn the child that an absurdity is to follow.

The present form of the test is the result of three successive

refinements. It will be noted that we have made two substitutions in

Binet's list of absurdities. Those omitted from the original scale are:

"_I have three brothers--Paul, Ernest, and myself_," and, "_If I were

going to commit suicide I would not choose Friday, because Friday is an

unlucky day and would bring me misfortune._" The last has a puzzling

feature which makes it much too hard for year X, and the other is

objectionable with children who are accustomed to hear a foreign

language in which the form of expression used in the absurdity is

idiomatically correct.

The two we have substituted for these objectionable absurdities are,

"The road downhill" and "What the engineer said." The five we have

used, though of nearly equal difficulty, are here listed in the order

from easiest to hardest. Our series as a whole is slightly easier than