Most of us have heard from one teacher or another that your first guess on a multiple choice questions is usually correct. The implication being that we shouldn't double guess our instincts when taking tests. However, I have often realized I got an answer incorrect earlier and gone back and changed it, only to feel mildly guilty or worried that I wasn't going with my "usually correct" first answer.

The Question: On multiple choice questions, is changing your answer to a question more likely to result in an incorrect answer than leaving it as you originally guessed?

(P.S. - For comments, do people agree with my interpretation of the claim, or do other people feel a different interpretation is correct?)

  • 1
    I'm sure some would debate that it depends on how much the person taking the test has studied in the first place, but I have often wondered about this. Excellent question. Aug 22 '11 at 20:57
  • I don't think that you have an instinct, which is a kind of behavior you have from birth, where to put a mark in a multiple choice test. Multiple choice tests are a cultural invention. I guess you mean spontaneous, fast or just first. Aug 23 '11 at 1:46
  • In most tests, you need to answer much more than 50% correctly, to succeed, and given some time pressure, you will only succeed, if most of your first answers are correct. That might lead to the wrong assumption, that most fast answers are correct, independent of doubts you have. Of course, you will only have a second idea, if you have doubts and aren't so sure, and some of them might be wrong, and more often, than questions, where you only thought you know for sure. Aug 23 '11 at 1:57
  • I was taught to answer the questions I absolutely knew the answers to first, skip the doubtful ones, then go back after doing that to ponder the unanswered ones and attempt the correct answer, my grades came up using this method.
    – Moab
    Aug 24 '11 at 1:30

It turns out that someone studied exactly this:

Most people believe that they should avoid changing their answer when taking multiple-choice tests. Virtually all research on this topic, however, suggests that this strategy is ill-founded: most answer changes are from incorrect to correct, and people who change their answers usually improve their test scores.

An explanation is also offered

Why do people believe in this strategy if the data so strongly refute it? We argue that the belief is in part a product of counterfactual thinking. Changing an answer when one should have stuck with one’s original answer leads to more “if only…” self-recriminations than does sticking with one’s first instinct when one should have switched. As a consequence, instances of the former are more memorable than instances of the latter. This differential availability provides individuals with compelling (albeit illusory) personal evidence for the wisdom of always following their first instinct, with sub-optimal test scores the result.


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    I will admit that I find it mildly infuriating that you closed this question, then reopened it, only to post an answer yourself. Regardless though, this is exactly the study I'd been looking for, so thank you. Aug 22 '11 at 15:08
  • 2
    @joh: only idiots never change their mind. You've been convincing...
    – Sklivvz
    Aug 22 '11 at 15:11
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    Very true. I'm just not convinced that I was as convincing as the study. :-D No worries. Not really upset. Genuinely glad to see this answered. "First Instinct Fallacy" is going on my "things to remember at parent-teacher conferences" list. Aug 22 '11 at 15:16
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    It is obvious that rechecking your answers on a test can benefit you. What the original "fallacy" came from was the otherwise very true idea that your first gut response to a question whose answer you do not know consciously can be correct. It had nothing to do with deliberation.
    – stoicfury
    Aug 22 '11 at 18:24

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