When I graduated from university, I thought that was the last time I’d have to do any serious mathematics. Boy, was I wrong. Not only do I still have to help my sisters out with their elementary school maths homework (trust me, it’s surprisingly difficult), but every time I log into Facebook, there’s always some tantalizing equation thrown at me, asking me to solve it.

“Only 1 in 1,000,000 people can solve this simple equation” — we’ve all seen taunts like these, inviting us to dust off our noggins and get our hands dirty with deceptively basic calculations. Well, here’s the newest ‘simple’ equation to go viral on the internet: 8 ÷ 2(2+2) = ? Have you worked out the answer yet? Are you sure? Have you double-checked everything? Did you show your work? Good!

This equation looks simple enough, right? Right?

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Odds are that you got one of two answers: you either belong to the huge swathe of internet users who got 1 or you’re one of the people whose answer is 16. The internet is raging with amateur and professional mathematicians debating what the real answer is. There may have been some arguments over who’s right. And some shouting. Maybe even some shoving.

Some internet users used calculators to show everyone that the answer was 16. Others referred to their ‘maths degrees’ as an appeal of authority to demonstrate that the answer was 1. Others still took this equation business a bit more seriously than you would expect, and suggested that both answers were correct… depending on what rules you use to figure out the answer.

People couldn’t agree whether the answer to the equation was 1 or 16

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The reason why there’s a lack of consensus regarding this equation is a fairly simple one. Different people are using different rules about what order everything should be calculated in. Whether, after adding 2 and 2 together in the brackets, you should divide 8 by 2 first or multiply what’s in the brackets by 2, instead. This sounds like a basic disagreement, but people got very heated over this.

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Robert Glenn Howard, a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told Slate that such equations are the same as riddles and games, and people get heated over such things because Facebook and other forums are a place for discussion: “People are already primed to engage in pretty intense deliberations, and that can bleed over into the way they play games.”

“Humans have used riddles as a form of play since ancient times,” Howard explained. “And sometimes people can get competitive and wrapped up in it.”

Just in case you were wondering, the answer to the equation is 16. No, wait. Never mind. Yep. Definitely 16. Definitely.

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