We’re often told to ‘trust your instinct’ or to ‘follow your gut.’ But psychological research and experiments have proven many times that following first instincts is not the best way to go. In many cases, changes in decisions actually prove to be better. Many people will argue there were many times they changed their minds and ended up being wrong, but there’s an explanation for this.
Humans naturally possess something called the ‘endowment bias.’ This means we feel strongly attached to things we already have, for example our first instincts. We find it hard to give this up, and we especially feel bad when we do give it up and it later turns out to be right. Such instances stick with us more because of our attachment, making them seem to be the more common occurrence even when they’re really not.
Contrary to popular belief, first instincts are not always the best choice.
We need to go beyond merely guessing at random when faced with the decision to either go with our first choice or revise our action. It turns out there’s a technique we can use to better decide when to trust our gut and when to change course. It has something to do with ‘metacognition’ or the ability to ‘think about thinking.’
Revising answers sometimes proves to be correct.
Albright College Assistant Professor of Psychology Justin J. Couchman first explored metacognition in rhesus monkeys, and he was amazed by their ability to judge whether or not they would get the right answers in an experiment. Couchman’s students, on the other hand, sometimes didn’t exhibit the same ability. They would seem surprised with their exam results because they either overestimated or underestimated their performance. The professor and his colleagues conducted an experiment to study the students’ metacognition.
It’s not about strictly sticking with your first choice; it’s about knowing when to do that and when to change course.
In the first experiment, students were asked to track their confidence on each answer to a multiple choice psychology exam by indicating whether their answer was a ‘guess’ or was ‘known.’ They were also asked to mark whether or not they revised their original answers. The experiment found that, more often than not, the revised answers were correct, and on questions that caused the students most uncertainty, sticking with their first answer proved to be wrong more than half the time.
In a second experiment that focused on sticking with original answers, students were asked to rate their confidence in their answers on a one-to-five scale. The students were able to identify the questions they were most likely to get right and wrong. Using the ratings as a guide, the researchers found that when the students chose to stick with an original instinct, they were correct more often than not. Thus, both revisions and first instincts were correct most of the time.
Metacognitive confidence can help determine whether or not you should change your answers.
The results might seem contradictory at first, but the focus should be on the students’ metacognitive confidence and their recording of it. By having a written record of their confidence level per question, they were able to make better choices.
According to Couchman:
Everyone feels their level of confidence when they make a decision, but the problem is that we quickly forget this information when we move on to the next decision. Because they rated their confidence for each question on paper, they could use those ratings instead of (notoriously faulty) memories. Using this tool, they made more informed choices that helped them perform better.
Recording confidence levels during multiple choice exams can help you decide better.
So basically, the key to knowing when to trust your instinct and when to change course is to track your feelings of confidence during the actual moment you’re making the decision.
Couchman further said:
“Only the self-tracking of confidence levels predicted when each (trusting instinct or changing course) was more appropriate. By using that simple form of metacognition, students could better identify which questions to revise and which were better left alone. Tracking how you feel while initially making a decision can provide valuable information later, can help you make more informed choices and will better prepare you to revise your initial decision when necessary.”
Of course, it’s still best to study for that exam.
So if you must guess some answers in your next multiple choice exam, instead of merely going for your first instinct or guessing at random, try rating your confidence levels and writing them down. It might consume a bit more time, but it can also increase your chances of guessing correctly.
But of course, it’s still best to just study.
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