Should we trust our first hunch?

We’ve all been asked a question and given our first hunch as the answer, and it’s been right.


Sometimes though, we do the opposite and change our minds to go with our second or third thought.


But which is the best strategy?


In 1984, Justin Kruger, PhD and a team of researchers, analysed the results of 33 studies conducted over the course of 70 years. They found that people who change their answers did better than those who stayed with their first responses. In fact, in none of these studies did people get a lower score because they changed their minds. This result was replicated in 2012 by Drs. Alex Heidenberg and Benjamin Layne.


Study after study has shown that when you change your answer in a multiple-choice test, you are more likely to be changing it from wrong to right than right to wrong. So actually sticking with your first answer is, on average, the wrong strategy.


This turned out to be true even for some experts, such as master chess players. In 2012, a group of researchers led by Dr. J.H. Moxley presented chess players with complex chess positions and had them “think aloud” while deciding which move to make. This allowed the researchers to evaluate whether the first move mentioned turned out to be better than moves chosen later in the deliberative process. The results were clear: first moves were worse, even for simple chess problems.


Does this mean we should ignore our hunches or intuitions? Not necessarily and, in reality, we don’t.


The reason, according to Kruger, is that getting the wrong answer when you’ve changed your mind, feels more painful.  Therefore we remember more clearly the times when we changed from right to wrong.  For that reason, we tend to anticipate the regret we will feel and so stick with our first instinct.


Dr Karen Kirsting writing on Monitor website agrees.  People buy into the first-instinct myth because it feels worse to change a correct answer to an incorrect one than to stick with an original incorrect answer. That feeling makes changing right answers to wrong more memorable than a wrong-to-right change and therefore seemingly more probable.

Take the example of switching into a seemingly faster moving check-out queue in a supermarket, says Kruger. Most people have the intuition that as soon as they switch, their new line slows down and their old one speeds up.


“Are the gods punishing us for our impulsiveness?” Kruger asks. “Probably not.”


A better explanation might be that moving over to an even slower line is more frustrating and memorable than just staying put in a dud line, says Kruger.


To establish the first-instinct fallacy, researchers examined the introductory psychology midterm exams of 1,561 University of Illinois students for eraser marks. They counted the number of times students changed answers and found that 51 percent of the changes were from wrong to right, 25 percent were from right to wrong and 23 percent were from wrong to wrong. Changes from wrong to right outnumbered changes from right to wrong 2-to-1, Kruger points out.


Dr. Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American academic noted for his work on the psychology of judgement and decision-making, says that decisions are the output of two processes, a fast intuition – or emotion-based process and a slower, deliberative one.


Interestingly though, it seems to matter a lot whether your intuitive decisions are based on subject-relevant knowledge.  If they are and you have an intuitive trust in your feelings, you probably will stick with the first intuitive hunch you had.  This phenomenon is called the emotional oracle effect.


Based on these extrapolations, Dr. Sarah Cummins, author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think and other psychology books, and quoted in Psychology Today, believes it’s best to think it through before plumping for that first intuitive response.


Clearly though, it’s not an exact science which is why the study of great thinkers like the chess players in Moxley’s 2012 study, did not bear out this theory. In chess perhaps, there’s a learning curve in the deliberative process.


In a nutshell, the extensive research studies suggest that it’s probably a good idea to trust your instincts if you know you are well-prepared, knowledgeable and have applied good strategies to get to your answer.


If, though, you were careless, happened upon a little nugget of information later on in the test, or didn’t trust yourself the first time around, then give yourself permission to make the change.


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