24 December 2004

Jigsaw Puzzles Cause Xmas Arguments But Excite Boffins

by Kate Melville

Researchers have found that people use a number of different strategies to complete a jigsaw; at the extreme, a person can be either a 'border obsessive' or an 'opportunistic' jigsaw puzzler. When individuals collaborate with people who have a different jigsaw strategy - as can happen when a family dusts off the jigsaw for a pleasant Christmas afternoon activity - problems can arise. Differing jigsaw strategies were found to increase the level of competition between puzzlers, leading to acts of one-up-man-ship, such as hiding the last jigsaw piece to be the 'winner' who places the last piece into the puzzle. Other subversive activities observed during the study include people shielding parts of the completed puzzle, hoarding piles of pieces and hiding the picture on the lid from others. Whilst these kinds of activities raise the element of challenge and fun in the jigsaw puzzle, they can also heighten the confrontation stakes between people doing the puzzle.

The strategies were uncovered as part of a research project at the University of Bath, published in the journal ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, to help understand how people collaborate on a range of challenging work and leisure activities. The researchers say the findings throw light on how and why people choose to collaborate, and are helping scientists in the University's Department of Computer Science to design software that supports collaboration on shared activities.

The researchers used jigsaw puzzles as a simple model for collaboration. In a series of studies, they monitored two people at a time as they constructed a 120 piece dinosaur jigsaw puzzle on their own, and then as part of a larger group. They found that 'border obsessives' focus exclusively on sorting through the entire stock of pieces for the sole purpose of completing the border before concentrating on the rest of the puzzle. 'Opportunists', in contrast, are much more creative in their approach, sorting piles on more complex criteria and completing the puzzle using a range of different methods, such as from the top of the picture down to the bottom, or by concentrating on a major component of the picture depending on the pieces they pick up. The researchers found that although opportunistic jigsaw puzzlers are better at doing a jigsaw on their own than those with a different strategy, it is possible for border obsessives to dominate when it comes to group decisions and behaviour.

"We are most interested in how both the activity and people's behaviour changes when they collaborate on an activity," said Dr Hilary Johnson at the University. "A person's jigsaw strategy closely reflects both their personality and level of skill, and although they may not be as extreme as opportunist or border obsessive, they frequently share behaviour with one of these two extremes. The strategies people employ to construct a jigsaw on their own can alter dramatically depending on their leadership skills and force of personality when they have to work with someone else. This is especially so if the person they are working with has a completely contrasting style. In one of our studies, even when people knew they were being video taped, we have seen people refusing to allow a fellow player to touch their part of the jigsaw and squabbling over access to pieces."

The researchers have studied how people do jigsaw puzzles as one of their models for understanding how people collaborate under a range of different circumstances, knowledge and skills. "From this study we have been able to create a range of knowledge 'structures' that help us understand how people work together on a shared project," said Johnson. "By uncovering the frameworks people use to collaborate on computer-based activities we can use the information to develop software that will help people collaborate more effectively."