Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

Multiple Choice Endowment Effect

As soon as I saw this, I had to share. Not only is it a great example of the endowment effect, it has some important advice for all of our student readers out there.

Often, you’ll hear people say that you should “trust your instincts” when making decisions. But are first instincts always the best?

Psychological research has shown many times that no, they are often no better – any in many cases worse – than a revision or change. Despite enormous popular belief that first instincts are special, dozens of experiments have found that they are not.

Here is the study. A team of researchers from Albright College and Fredonia State University had students take a multiple choice exam. After each question, they had to rate how confident they were in their answer and whether they changed their initial answer to something else or not.

The idea was to test the students’ metacognitive awareness. At the basic level, students should be more likely to change answers when they are less confident of them. But then looking back, they wanted to know if that confidence was related to the actual accuracy of the answer and whether changing answers was a good strategy or a bad strategy. At an even higher level, they wanted to look at the interaction – is it a good strategy to change the answer when you are unsure compared to when you are sure.

My Take

The rule that you should never change your first answer because your instinct is more likely to be correct has been around ever since multiple choice tests were invented. From a cognitive psychology perspective, there is some sense to this idea. Your instinctive choice will be based on a wider range of information that is beyond the capacity of your working memory. As soon as you start analyzing the problem consciously, you are limiting your purview. This is the classic System 1 versus System 2 case.

But this research found that the relationship is much more nuanced than this. As usual, a better answer is that it depends.

Here are just a few of the findings:

  • When students changed their answer, they were more likely to change it from an incorrect answer to a correct answer than vice versa. The rule is a myth.
  • For questions where you don’t have confidence in your first answer, changing to another answer is even more beneficial than on average.
  • The confidence rating needs to be done immediately. Ratings of confidence at the end of the exam were very inaccurate measures of if the answers are correct. This is why so many students are shocked at their grades. They often thought they did well when they did poorly and vice versa.

This gives teachers a very simple way to help students improve their test scores. Have them immediately rate their confidence in each answer. Then when they are done, go back to the less confident answers and try hard to derive a better answer. This is a better use of time than an unfocused “check your work” strategy.

One side note – rhesus monkeys turn out to be much better than humans at this task.

Your Turn

I know that we have many teachers and many students who read EID, so please feel free to share your personal experiences. And we are all former students of one kind or another. Did you ever follow this rule? Did you learn the hard way not to?

Please share.

Image Credit: Alberto G

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