How to Win a Wishbone-Breaking Contest

Follow these three basic tips to increase your chances of ending up with the bigger side of the bone (infographic).
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Copyright American Institute of Physics (reprinting information

Abigail Malate, Staff Illustrator

(Inside Science) -- This Thursday, once the turkey has been devoured and the plates cleared, you might want to try your luck at an old Thanksgiving pastime: a wishbone-breaking contest. The wishbone, technically known as the furcula, is a V-shaped bone found at the base of the neck in birds, and even some dinosaurs. According to tradition, if two people grab hold of opposite ends of the bone and pull until it breaks, the one who ends up with the bigger piece will get his or her wish. And it turns out a few scientifically guided tips may help you tip fate in your favor.

Rachael Schmedlen and Barry Belmont, two biomedical engineers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, suggest three main techniques that can increase your chances of winning a wishbone-breaking contest: Pick the thicker side of the bone, grab the bone closer to the center, and let the other person do most of the pulling. Check out our infographic below to learn more. 

wishbone infographic
Media rights

Copyright American Institute of Physics (reprinting information

The engineers came to their conclusions after making 3-D scans of around a dozen wishbones, from both chickens and turkeys, and then creating a computer model of the bones that they could pull apart in the virtual world hundreds of times.

Some of the tips might verge on cheating, Belmont admits. “There’s a scale in the honesty,” he said. If you want to engage in all-out subterfuge, you can try to secretly nick the other person’s side of the bone with a knife. It’s the most assured way of winning, but also the most dishonest, Belmont said.

While Belmont notes that computer simulations can’t always be trusted, he has found the tips work for him. “Now every year, I kind of win,” he said.

Story text by Catherine Meyers

Author Bio & Story Archive

Abigail Malate is a graphic designer at the American Institute of Physics, which produces the editorially independent news service Inside Science.