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When the heroes know they're being tested, but the purpose of the test isn't what they think it is. Subtrope of False Crucible.

This is commonly done in Real Life psychological tests, to get round people giving the answers they think the tester wants to see. It's harder to do that if you don't know the true purpose of the test. Unlike secret tests, the hero does know he's being tested, so there's less need to go to elaborate, and unsafe, lengths to fake danger.

This is related to Danger Room Cold Open, since in both cases the heroes know they're being tested, but that trope applies when the viewer doesn't know it's a test, irrespective of whether the test has a hidden purpose.

Examples of Hidden Purpose Test include:

Anime and Manga

  • Naruto loves doing this.
    • Hatake Kakashi sets up a test where three fresh ninja recruits have to steal bells from him... which is totally impossible. The day before, he told them to skip breakfast without explaining the exercise, under the premise that it'd make them throw up otherwise, so they'd be hungry during the test, and then busts one of them trying to sneak food. The game is actually to see whether they will break the rules and feed their starving team mate, since ninja who fail missions are trash, but ninja who don't look out for each other are "lower than that!"
    • The first stage of the Chuunin Exam is just finding the room for it by seeing through an illusion technique. The final question is given at the end with the condition that once you've heard the question, if you get it wrong you instantly fail and can never take the exam again, or you can quit and try again next year. There is no question, it's just a test to see if you'll gamble your future on the mission.
    • During a Filler episode, its revealed that the dreaded "final question" in the chuunin exam one year was subtly different. In this version, if you get the question wrong, you're still fine but your team mates are stuck as genin forever. Agreeing to continue means you fail. Apparently, ninja should be willing to gamble with their own futures, but not their teammates' futures.
    • The first nine questions are themselves a hidden purpose test of skill: The questions are too difficult for most Genin to know, but there are two "ringers" (who know all the answers) planted among the candidates taking the test. There are proctors watching the candidates, and any genin caught cheating five times is automatically failed, along with their team. The key to passing the test is to figure out how to get the answers without getting caught, as a test of the ninja's information-gathering skills. The proctors merely pretend not to notice some of the cheating (Ibiki notices that Gaara is up to something, but gives him a pass as he can't figure out what), but presumably give penalties for what they consider to be substandard information gathering.
  • In Yu Yu Hakusho, Genkai makes the interested applicants for her Spirit Training play video games. One is a karaoke machine, another a punching bag, and another a "rock-paper-scissors" type of game. The bag tests Spirit Energy, the karaoke machine tests how well they can sync up with the supernatural and the rock-paper-scissors game tests spiritual awareness.
    • "What's the Tetris and Pac-Man for?" "They're just for fun."
    • Prior to this, Genkai weeds out potential students from rejects by way of a lottery. Each candidate receives an envelope with a piece of paper. Those with blank paper strips are sent home, while those with red strips advance. In truth, all of the strips start out blank. They only turn red if the candidate has a certain minimum amount of spirit energy.
  • In Honey Honey no Suteki na Bouken, Honey thinks she has to run over hot coals as a ritual for a nomadic tribe's people, but in truth she has to remove her shoes because they are looking for a rose-shaped birthmark that represents royalty on a young girl's foot.
  • The last chapters in the Touhou manga, Strange and Bright Nature Deity, had Yukari testing the three fairy protagonists via danmaku to see if they were fit to live in the very special tree they were planning to move in. After the three fairies were shot to hell and back and were ready to give up on the tree, Yukari revealed that she wasn't testing how strong they were, she was testing how weak they were. Yukari didn't want anything powerful and potentially troublesome inhabiting the tree because it was important to the border around Gensokyo. Since the three fairies proved themselves to be utterly pathetic in terms of power, they passed with flying colors.
  • In Million Dollar Kid, a tycoon gives one hundred million yen to each of his three sons and tells them the one who best uses the money will succeed him. What the youngest son (a gambling addict who happens to be the protagonist) doesn't know is that his father is using this as an excuse to cast him off from the family.
  • Eyeshield 21 had Hiruma staging a test to eliminate the many people who want to join the team. The test is to carry a bag of ice to the top of Tokyo Tower within a day. However, Hiruma set it so it was very difficult (but not impossible) to reach the top. Such as adding sugar to the ice to make it melt faster, certain floors have the temperatures raised to alarming levels and being chased by Hiruma's vicious Angry Guard Dog. When asked about the unfairness of the test, Hiruma stated that he was looking for those with determination who can make it to the top, regardless of how difficult or challenging the test was.

Fan Fiction

  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Fanfic Hell Hath No Fury, the hero agrees to face three tests, of body, mind and spirit. Only after going through all three does he discover what he thought was a test of body was actually a test of mind, the test of spirit actually a test of body, and the test of mind actually a test of spirit.


  • This trope is the entire foundation of the 2004 movie D.E.B.S, in which a secret test is hidden in the American S.A.T.s which measures the students aptitude for spying. All those who pass the hidden test are given the opportunity (which nobody, it seems, turns down) to become a D.E.B. It is not shown where the boys who pass the test are sent, or why there is a Frenchgirl taking the S.A.T.s.
  • In Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan's Kobayashi Maru test, the hidden purpose was to test how trainees would deal with an unwinnable situation.
  • In Men in Black, potential recruits are shown taking a marksmanship test, with a mix of both alien and human targets in a street scene. James Edwards ignores the aliens, putting a single shot in the forehead of a little girl, and invokes this trope when ordered to explain his choice, claiming she was the most suspicious target since she was carrying quantum physics textbooks and looked too young to be out by herself at night surrounded by said aliens. The movie leaves it up in the air as to whether Edwards is right or whether it's his other qualities - quick outside-the-box thinking, attention to detail, and willingness to challenge authority, among others - that lead Agent K to select Edwards as his replacement; the novelization (which deviates from the film in some areas) presents his reasoning as correct.
    • Another possible one (again, the movie doesn't confirm either way): Earlier, when presented with a multiple-choice test on paper with no flat surface to write on, he very noisily drags a table over to his chair while everyone else stays where they are and struggles with the difficulty of penciling in their answers on the floppy paper test sheets.


  • Robert A. Heinlein's Space Cadet: Matt Dodson has to pass a series of tests to get into the Space Patrol. One of them requires him to stand over a milk bottle and drop beans into the bottle with his eyes closed. Dodson ends up with only one bean in his bottle and sadly turns it in. He notices while standing in line that several people got many beans in their bottles, and after turning his in, he asks the examiner what would keep people from cheating by peeking. The examiner says, "Nothing at all", much to Dodson's disappointment. Then the book says about Dodson: "It did not occur to him that he might not know what was being tested."
  • The Westing Game: Heirs to a dead man's fortune think that they're supposed to find out who killed him. They're actually supposed to find out that he isn't actually dead, it was all a trick.
  • In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a rebellion occured in Cao Cao's capital city of Xu Chang, coupled with much burning. When it was over, Cao gathered all the officials in the city. Those who left their homes to put out the fires were told to stand under a red flag; those who stayed in their homes were told to stand under a white flag. This was a trap: Cao assumed that all of the people who left their homes were really assisting the rebellion and would use the idea of "putting out fires" as an excuse.
  • In The Mysterious Benedict Society a group of children take an entrance exam for a gifted program. The exam is 40 multiple-choice questions that are absurdly complicated and deal with information no child would know (except Sticky, who becomes the Society's Smart Guy). The purpose of the test is not to see what the children know but how well they follow directions. At the start they're told to read every question before answering. Main character Reynie decides to take the instructions literally and reads the whole test without trying to answer any questions. He discovers that question 21 told the answer to #1 and vice versa, #22 and #2 contained each other's answers, etc. Thus he finished the test while everyone who tried to do one question at a time ended up confused and frustrated.
  • In The Wheel of Time novel The Gathering Storm, Aviendha is training to become a Wise One. The other Wise Ones keep commenting that she is "learning too slowly" and assign her a variety of ridiculously pointless punishments, such as carrying heavy rocks from one side of a field to the other and back again. She obediently carries out her "punishments" but can't figure out what lesson she's supposed to be learning. When she finally stands up to the Wise Ones and refuses to accept her punishment, they accept her as one of their own.

Live Action TV

  • Murder, She Wrote episode "Test of Wills": Jessica Fletcher is called in by a wealthy man to find out which of his heirs is trying to kill him. When he suddenly dies, she tries to discover the murderer. In the end it turns out that the man only pretended to die, in order to smoke out the killer.
  • On Xena: Warrior Princess, an arrogant new warlady wants to replace Xena as Ares' favored human, so he lets the two of them fight it out in a special isolated dimension. Ares says that either of them can just call his name at any time if they need his help. Eventually the other warlady does so, and Ares appears only to reveal that by being the first who had to call for help, she's lost. "I said you could. I didn't say you should."
  • Star Trek the Next Generation:
    • When Wesley is taking the Starfleet entrance exam his final test is "facing his biggest fear." While he's waiting for the test to start, a fire breaks out in a nearby lab and he can only save one of the techs working there. It turns out that that was the test, his fear was having to make a decision like that. He knew there was going to be a test but he didn't know that the test was happening when it was happening.
    • In the episode "Lower Decks", Worf teaches his fellow crew members the Mok'bara, and has an advanced class that you must test into. The test consists of defeating master Worf while blindfolded. Which of course means that the test really consists of removing the blindfold and standing up to Worf. (Worf gets bonus points for straight-facedly claiming that this is an ancient Klingon ritual, when actually he made it up on the spot.)
    • In the episode "Thine Own Self", Deanna Troi repeatedly takes—and fails—the bridge officer's test, unable to come up with Techno Babble fast enough to keep the ship from exploding during the holodeck simulation. She's only able to succeed when she realizes that the test is not whether she can memorize minutiae about the ship's operation but whether she can order someone who has the necessary knowledge to do the task knowing they'll die doing so.
  • In the Covert Affairs episode "Bang and Blame", the heroine Annie returns to The Farm to complete her CIA training ... and discover who's leaking cadets' names to terrorist web sites. In one exercise, an instructor shows cadets a table full of various firearms, and tells them they can take one item to help them escape through a door at the other end of a maze. Each cadet picks a gun and blasts away at targets that pop up in doorways and windows. Annie uses the butt of a gun to break glass and remove a map of the maze. After studying it for a minute, she sneaks through the maze, ducking out of sight of the targets as they pop up. Because it's this trope, and that sort of show, only Annie passes the test. Firing a gun even once betrays the presence of an agent, who's supposed to slip in and out unnoticed.
  • On one episode of Myth Busters, various staff members were asked to take part in a observation test, identifying what item of Adam or Jamie's clothes changed each time they disappeared and reappeared behind a curtain. It actually was an observation test, but the point was to see if anyone noticed that the figure wasn't actually Adam or Jamie, but one of them posing as the other by wearing their clothes and a realistic latex mask of the other's head.

Real Life

  • The Milgram experiment.
    • Pretty much any psychology experiment, because if people know what the experimenters are studying, they won't behave naturally.
  • Officials wanting to become civil servants in the Imperial Chinese Bureaucracy often had to pass extremely difficult and esoteric exams requiring precise forms of answer on irrelevant subjects. They weren't looking for your knowledge of the useless subjects--they were looking for your ability to master and apply a technical skill. This was so they could slot you in wherever you were needed--for China's famed bureaucracy was not very large at all (contrary to stereotype.)
    • And to be fair to the Chinese, fairly large portions (but not all) of the test do involve matters relating to civil/military administration and political philosophy.
  • The British came across this technique in their Civil service exams. They couldn't actually care less whether you could translate, sight unseen, large slabs of Latin or Greek--what they did care about was your ability to master a technically difficult body of knowledge from scratch and apply it with precision and skill. To explain how well this worked- approximately one thousand Indian Civil Service clerks governed 250 million people in the Raj, and by all accounts did quite creditably well. For a comparison- imagine if the entirety of the United States Government consisted of Congress. No aides, no helpers, Chiefs of Staff, etc., just Congressmen and Senators.
  • Part of leadership training in some military forces often involves this: trainees are given instructions to carry out some task, often involving something that they couldn't be reasonably expected to know (such as planning and executing an ambush before having received any infantry tactical training). The importance isn't necessarily in being successful in the task itself, but in learning how to craft orders, issue instructions, and coordinate groups of people.
  • When a doctor or nurse is giving a basic physical examination, they'll pay a great deal of attention to the sphygmomanometer (the squeezy blood pressure cuff). While they are measuring systolic and diastolic blood pressure, at the same time they're gauging the patient's breathing rate - because people tend to involuntarily alter their breathing when you tell them you're measuring it. If you remember this at your next physical, you stand a good chance of screwing up the trick.
  • Averted hard in Experimental Economics; on the contrary to Experimental Psychology and for a number of reasons [1], the commonly agreed methodology in Experimental Economy forbids from any sort of deception towards those participating in the test and any economist doing so would pretty much have no chance of being able to publish their results... in an economics journal, at least.

Tabletop RPG

  • Earthdawn supplement The Way of War. Sky Raider trainees are ordered to unload and reload barrels until they complain about doing something so tedious. This is done because Sky Raiders don't want their crew to be robots: they want people who know what they're doing and why they're doing it.

Video Games

  • In The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim, the quest to join the Dark Brotherhood involves being told to figure out which of three people has a contract out for his or her murder, then fulfill that contract. After you've finished the job, you learn that there was no right or wrong answer; your new employer simply wanted to find out whether you would commit murder on her orders.

Web Original


  1. Mainly because in such experiments what is being tested is how people play games and economists want to avoid the players second guessing the purpose of the experiment, which could lead them to believe that the game they are playing is purposeless and playing 'sub-optimally'
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