Don’t Trust Your First Impression

Remember when you were in school and you took multiple choice tests?

When you came to a question and you weren’t quite sure what the answer was, what was the advice? The advice I remember was: “Go with your first impression. It’s usually the right answer.”  

In fact, in the 2000 edition of Barron’s How to Prepare for the GRE, the graduate school acceptance exam, the advice was similar: “Exercise great caution if you decide to change an answer. Experience indicates that many students who change answers change to the wrong answer.”    

Bad, bad advice. It’s just not true. 

Going with your first impression of what you think is correct is known as the First Instinct Fallacy. It is based on the belief that you should avoid changing answers when taking tests, because your first instinct is the best.

The First Instinct Fallacy is so prevalent that in one survey conducted at Texas A&M University, the majority of college instructors (55%) believed that changing the initial answer would probably lower test scores whereas only 16% believed that changing an answer would improve a student’s score.  

multiple choice

Yet, research has shown that most test takers who change their initial answers to questions they’re unsure of, change them from incorrect to correct. Changes from wrong to right outnumber changes from right to wrong by a margin of over 2 to 1.  In other words, when you change your answers, you improve your score. 

Research on changing answers on tests dates back to as early as 1928.  In 33 studies from 1928 to 1984, not one of those studies found that test takers were hurt by changing their answers.

Our first instincts can stink. Sixty years of research tells us that. So why do we trust first instincts anyway?

Answer: It feels better.  

The First Instinct Fallacy is so accepted because it feels worse to change a correct answer to an incorrect one than it does to stick with an original incorrect answer. We remember changing a correct answer to a wrong answer because it hurts. When you discover you’ve made this misstep  you start beating yourself up, thinking, “If only I had…”

According to researcher Justin Kruger, “Getting the answer wrong on your first instinct is just nowhere as bad as seeing that you had the answer right and changed it to wrong.”

Based on my experience, the First Instinct Fallacy is one of the reasons that almost always, our initial idea of a problem is not the true problem we’re facing. But there are other reasons why we solve the wrong problem again and again.

One reason: we have been taught to find answers to problems, not to find problems to solve.

Scheduled to be released in late 2022, my latest book, What you think is the problem is NOT the problem will reveal a simple method to consistently find the best problem to solve for any challenge you face. Throughout this year, I will be sharing excerpts from the book. I intend to challenge your thinking when we explore topics like: cows and the environment; what really causes heart attacks, and dancing with coyotes. 

Stay tuned.

1 Comment

  1. Dr sunil gupta

    Hmm
    Sometimes the first instincts are the most creative ideas and not working on them could be lost opportunities. The so called intuition or gut is an important part of thinking and it separates the start ups and innovators from the elephants
    See Blink or Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats

    Reply

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