The busted myth that if unsure of the answer, it’s best to stick with the initial hunch

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A common dilemma when it comes to answering tricky questions on the spot or taking tests of any kind is whether or not we should go with the answer based on our initial gut instinct. There is a generally perceived wisdom that if one is unsure of the correct answer that it is best to stick with the initial idea that popped in the mind. This perception was also checked amongst science and arts professors in universities and colleges, and only 5% to 6% said that changing one’s initial answer was a good idea and would improve their score, i.e. they almost universally believe that one should stick with their initial gut instinct.

But despite the popular consensus on this topic, it’s turned out to be a myth. Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein showed how it is usually a good idea to change one’s answer if they have reservations about their initial gut instinct. From an overview of 60 studies which they consulted on the matter, they found that nearly every single student had the same experience, that when changed their answers in tests, as indicated by erasures and crossed out answers, they tended to switch from a wrong answer to a right answer.

However, there are caveats to this. One needs to have some minimal evidential basis for changing the answer. If they are merely guessing that it should be a different answer, there is no likelihood that they will switch to a correct answer. However, if they have even a small factual or evidential basis for switching answers it would be best to trust their head, rather than the initial gut instinct, and change the answer.

So, to conclude, “When in doubt, we’re usually best not trusting our instincts. After all, our first hunches are just that—hunches. If we have a good reason to believe we’re wrong, we should go with our head, not our gut, and turn that pencil upside-down.” (Lilienfeld et al., 2009). So contrary to the general view which holds that your gut instinct is probably correct, there is a greater statistical chance that your second thought might give better guidance.


References

Benjamin, L. T., Jr., Cavell, T. A., & Shallenberger, W. R., III. (1984). ‘Staying with initial answers on objective tests: Is it a myth?’, Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 11, pp 133–141.

Friedman, S., & Cook, G. (1995). ‘Is an examinee’s cognitive style related to the impact of answer-changing on multiple-choice tests?’, Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 63, pp 199–213.

Geiger, M. (1996). ‘On the benefits of changing multiple-choice answers: Student perception and performance’, Education, Vol. 117, pp 108–116.

Geiger, M. (1997). ‘An examination of the relation between answer-changing, test-wiseness, and performance’, Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 6, pp 49–60.

Higham, P. A., & Gerrard, C. (2005). ‘Not all errors are created equal: Metacognition and changing answers on multiple choice tests’, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 59, pp 28–34.

Kruger, J., Wirtz, D., & Miller, D. (2005). ‘Counterfactual thinking and the first instinct fallacy’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 88, pp 725–735.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. John Wiley & Sons.

About the author

M. Leblanc

Trainer, martial artist (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), avid self-improver