How To Solve The Viral Math Problem That's Stumping The Internet And Also Me

Here is a quick, fun, and self-indulgent story: I recently started studying for the GRE, and, upon skimming through the workbook, realized that I hadn't taken a math class in almost nine years. Any confidence I had in my quantitative reasoning abilities quickly dissipated. I've since begun taking intro level high school math classes online because I literally have to start from scratch, so when I came upon this viral math problem that's stumping the Internet, I thought, "Aha! A chance to test my 9th grade math abilities!"

File that one under "Famous last words."

Here's the deal: Researchers in Japan reportedly came across this deceptive number jumble after finding that only 60 percent of people in their 20s who attempted to solve it did so correctly. (Great, another thing Millennials have ruined — math.) It has since gone viral, as these things are wont to do, because apparently none of us have anything better to do with our time than to try (and usually fail) to solve weird brain teasers.

But maybe there's more to it than meets the eye. As soon as I saw the math problem, I knew there were probably tricks involved, because it seemed Too Easy. I also knew that if I attempted to solve it actively in this article, no one would ever take me seriously again, because my math abilities are abysmal. I would be laughed out of grad school, probably. Or something.

Thus, I turned to instructional videos from the interwebs. Why? Because if there's one thing I've learned from the interwebs, it's that if you're having a problem with something — anything — someone else is probably also having a problem with it... and accordingly, they've probably gone ahead and figured it out, making an instructional video documenting their solution as they went. So, yeah — I've been watching other people do math all morning. It's been great.

Now, before you join me in the wide world of online math tutorials, you should try this problem out for yourselves. Are you ready for it? Here it is:

Go ahead. I'll wait.

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OK, thoughts? Concerns? Did you get negative one? Did you get nine? Yeah, me too.


But we're both wrong, and we're wrong because of an acronym. Apparently, one common response to solving this problem is.... drumroll, please... PEMDAS. "PEMDAS, duh!" they laughed. Surely you remember PEMDAS? Dudes, I don't think I knew PEMDAS to begin with, but apparently, it stands for Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally — or, the slightly more helpful version, Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction, which is generally the "correct" order of operations used to solve math problems. But not in this case! Following PEMDAS will get you negative one, which is incorrect.

But negative one isn't the only wrong answer. Other people got tricked by the "three divided by one third" part, largely because they were too crafty for their own good. They neglected to account for the fact that, if you turn the fraction one third into 1/3, the /, mathematically speaking, is actually a division symbol. The result is this:

This will get you nine. Again, no.

So what's the correct answer? It's one. Just plain ol' one. Here, my sweets, is how you get there:

MindYourDecisions on YouTube

Images: Roman Mager/Unsplash; Giphy; MindYourDecisions/YouTube (3)