Puzzles & Brain Teasers

How To Solve This Viral Math Problem That’s Stumping Everyone

It's harder than it looks!

There’s a math problem making the rounds on social media that looks extremely simple at first glance. But it’s such a head-scratcher, it had a group of writers and editors from the publication Popular Mechanics debating the answer and eventually publishing their conversation in order to get their audience involved.

In a post entitled “This Simple Math Problem Drove Our Entire Staff Insane. Can You Solve It?”, they explained that “it practically caused a civil war in the Popular Mechanics office.”

It motivated, they continued: “… [a] heated chat between the editors who stopped doing any semblance of actual work for the day to solve an equation designed to flummox fourth graders — and make many enemies in the process — followed by insight from real mathematicians and physicists who begrudgingly responded to our request for comment to solve the enraging math debate, once and for all.”

See, the ambiguity of the order in which you complete the equation is what has everyone questioning the true answer. Even if you considered yourself good at math in school or you enjoy doing math problems for fun now, you might be tricked by this problem.

smart girl does math
Adobe

At least you’re not alone. Why do we keep stumping ourselves in front of our closest internet friends?

embarrassed woman

So, here is the math problem that has us all worried about our basic math skills:

Mandy Gambrell

It looks really simple, right? Those are single digits, and the problem looks super short.

But it’s not easy if you can’t recall the order of operations you learned in algebra class — or if the friends with whom you are debating learned the order differently.

math problems
Adobe

In the U.S., most people are taught to do the math following “PEMDAS,” an acronym for parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. The acronym stands for the order of operations you should use to complete a math problem.

homework
Adobe

OK, here we go. This YouTube video from user BaneAru explains how PEMDAS works:

Mike Breen, who serves as the public awareness officer for the American Mathematical Society, told the folks at “Popular Mechanics” that this is an ambiguous math problem. (In other words, you’re not wrong to be confused!)

confused about math
Adobe

The PEMDAS version of solving it gets the answer 16. But those who use a different method called BODAS — brackets, orders, division, multiplication, addition and then subtraction — get an answer of 1.

calculator
Adobe

For anyone who didn’t get 16 or 1 as an answer, well, it’s probably time to brush up on your math skills.

math problems
Adobe

Breen also said the more strict mathematicians will tell you the answer is 16. Eight divided by two is four. Two plus two is four. Multiply those two together and you get your 16.

doing algebra

Whew! Those of us who only took math because it was mandatory to graduate are ready for this problem to fall quickly out of our social media feeds.

We’re having flashbacks to the viral Yanny/Laurel debate!

Of course, everyone heard Yanny, right?