Is That Your Final Answer?

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Science  03 Jun 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5727, pp. 1379
DOI: 10.1126/science.308.5727.1379e

Taking a multiple-choice test or patronizing a crowded supermarket, we may find ourselves in a predicament, after having made a selection, in deciding whether to stick with it or to switch. The widespread belief is that it's better to stay put rather than moving to another, apparently faster-moving, checkout line. Similarly, on a test, college students believe that the first choice is more likely to be correct.

Using more than 2000 exams from 2 years of an undergraduate psychology course, Kruger et al. show that switching (detected as erasures) from an incorrect to a correct answer occurred twice as often as the converse, which is consistent with decades of empirical studies. Why then do we prefer to stay with our first choices? A series of follow-up experiments revealed that students became more frustrated after learning that they'd switched to a wrong answer as opposed to alighting on it at the start and that, as a consequence, the former instances were more memorable than the latter even though the outcomes (an incorrect choice) were precisely the same. In other words, the negative emotion engendered by having given up on the right choice weights the encoding/retrieval of memories so as to convince us of what the authors term the first instinct fallacy. — GJC

J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 88, 725 (2005).

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