Hmmm This Looks Familar

“Study hard, that’s the only way to become smarter!” So many of us have heard these words from our parents in hopes that we become the smartest people we can be. But is what they’ve been saying all along really true? Why it’s Smart to be Dumb an article by Eric Haseltine Ph.D, has concluded that maybe ignorance has some merit when it comes to making correct decisions. Recognmultiple choiceition heuristic is the main reason for this conclusion. When picking between two answers you’re more likely to choose the answer you’re most familiar with, and in most instances that’s the correct answer. This heuristic saves us time and energy that can be better spent doing other things.

To some, this idea can seem like just a lucky guess due to not knowing the right answer but the research shows that recognition heuristics can “achieve an equal or even higher inferential accuracy than more complex ones” (Pachur 2009). A study was done with older and younger adults to see if recognition heuristics could help them with decision making. The study was done by having both groups answer two questions: “Which American cities have the most inhabitants” and “Which two infectious diseases has a higher annual rate in Germany”. Afterwards they were asked which of the cities and diseases had they heard of before the experiment and tested on cognitive capacities. After gathering the data they concluded that recognition heuristics helped both groups give the correct answers when the individuals had no clue what the correct answer was to the question.

The article by Mr. Haseltine directly correlates with the study because they both point towards recognition heuristic being one of the best short cuts to seeming smarter than you actually may be. Your mind’s ability to choose quickly and accurately could be one of the reasons why mankind is still alive to this day. “If your ancestors had dawdled over recognition decisions such as “is that thing in the forest something I can eat, or something that can eat me?” they would never have actually gotten to be your ancestors because they wouldn’t have lived long enough to reproduce” (Haseltine 2010). This heuristic is not only a short cut but your brain evolving to keep you alive longer.

When discussing ignorance and recognition heuristics I think they go hand in hand. Knowing everything would cause our heuristics and our intelligence to battle against each other  causing us to second guess ourselves. In order for our naturally evolved heuristic to work we have to be a little ignorant and allow our mind to work. Therefore, Haseltine’s article directly hits the importance of recognition heuristics and how it’s supposed to be used.

I personally find this topic interesting because I realize that when taking multiple choice tests and quizzes, most people say stick with your gut decision. And when you don’t know too much about the topic you mainly do stick with your gut feeling. But when you have studied hard and feel confident that you know the subject you start to find yourself second guessing and looking at the next best answer rather than your gut answer.  This usually never works out for me and I end up getting the question wrong because I go with the second best guess rather than my gut feeling. My gut feeling is my natural recognition heuristic telling me that my mind recognizes the answer and although I’m unsure, I should listen to it. So the next time you’re taking a test and your get a gut feeling, remember it’s just your recognition heuristic telling you it recognizes an answer, and if you want to be correct studies show that you should go along with it.

– Haseltine, Eric. “Why It’s Smart to Be Dumb.” Psychology Today. Eric Haseltine, 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <>.

– Pachur, T., Mata, R., & Schooler, L. J. (2009). Cognitive aging and the adaptive use of recognition in decision making. Psychology and Aging, 24(4), 901-915. doi:10.1037/a0017211

8 thoughts on “Hmmm This Looks Familar

  1. Maryfay Jackson

    This is the weirdest thing because in some cases you could not study on a test and guess only what you find most familiar and do better on it than someone that spent hours studying for the same test. I like that this is a way for me to seem smart but actually know nothing about a subject. Some things just seem so obvious to guess because they are so well known and it is god to know that this can work in my favor. So now it’s okay to not study for my tests, right?

  2. slistenb Post author

    Lol It’s definitely going to work in your favor for some situations, not all unfortunately.. When I was doing the research all I kept thinking was, “So basically psychology is telling me not to study for finals and go with my gut?” haha but sadly I don’t think I’m up to take that risk. I see more losses than gains. So disclaimer: If you’re thinking about not studying for finals and going with your gut for tests…. I am not responsible for any disappointments you may receive within the next few weeks.


  3. fremont

    This was a very interesting article! I do agree with your findings, except I can’t help but wondering if sometimes what you recognize may not be the correct answer? I know that if I have studied one topic more than another, I will be more likely to confuse myself and pick what I am most accustomed to seeing. I am curious to see if this can work against you when taking tests. I am sure that it usually serves us well, though. I’m glad that I have such a good instinctual gut reaction to things! 🙂

    1. slistenb Post author

      I definitely think you have an argument here. I guess you just have to pick and choose when to listen to your gut and when to just go with your intelligence. I guess like the article said it’s best used when you know absolutely nothing about the topic. That way you have no conflicting voices. But either way you’re right it’s good to know you can sometimes trust your gut lol

  4. Remy Marcus

    I think this is an interesting concept because it is very true for me. I think when I start to over think the question and debate between two answers, I usually end up choosing the incorrect one. Also whenever I pick my gut answer and then end up changing it, I usually get it wrong. So its nice to hear that the recognition heuristic might be useful for getting some questions correct. I wonder though, if it can also mislead you sometimes if you didn’t study at all and then just pick a question because it sounds familiar.
    However, I’m glad to hear this can be a useful tactic.

    1. slistenb Post author

      Ugh, that happens to me all the time. I change my answer cause something tells me I’m wrong but I was right all along. smh It truly sucks, but at least now you know that next time it happens stay strong with that first answer. It could be the difference between an extra point or not.

  5. jennmoreland

    I never made that connection between test taking and recognition. I found this to be a very helpful and interesting comment. When taking multiple choice tests I also always second guess my gut feeling but after reading and better understand this article I will trust it more.

    1. slistenb Post author

      Trust me that’s exactly what I learned from this article too! It’ll come in handy one day, hopefully soon. hahaha

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