Eric Rosenbaum is a blogger and instructor for Victory Step. Eric contact's information - firstname.lastname@example.org
Imagine that you are in a room with nothing but a wax candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. How can you attach the candle to the wall and light it so that the wax doesn’t drip onto the floor?
When psychologist Karl Duncker asked subjects this question in the 1940s, only about 20% of them got it right. It’s not that the problem is hard; once you know the answer it seems obvious (the correct answer is at the bottom of this post). The problem seems hard because it exploits flaws in human reasoning known as cognitive biases.
SAT problems can sometimes be as tricky as the candle problem. You may think that you are immune to the SAT’s tricks (a bias known to psychologists as bias blind spot), but chances are, you are not: some tricky phrasing can have you wasting time on a wild goose chase, or getting the question wrong altogether.
Confirmation Bias, or, “A Looks like the Right Answer; It Must Be A”
Have you ever tried to remember a song title, certain that begins with the letter L, only to remember days later that it begins with B instead? Once you start thinking in terms of L, it’s very difficult to switch tracks to think about B. In other words, instead of really looking for the title of the song, you begin looking for confirmation that your first method was correct. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias.
One great way to avoid confirmation bias on the SAT and ACT is to avoid looking at the answers beforehand. If you subconsciously pick A before you’ve completely worked through the problem, it will not be hard to justify your solution later, right or wrong.
Overconfidence Effect, or, “This Is Easy!”
A study done by psychologist Ulrich Hoffrage came up with some interesting, upsetting results: of the people who claimed to be 99% certain about their answer to a problem, 20% turned out to be incorrect. Most of these people weren’t too far away from the right answer, and they were justified in making the choices they did. The problem is that people tend to overestimate how certain their certainty is.
Sometimes the most dangerous questions are those that look easy. They probably are easy, but maybe not as easy as you think they are. It’s important to check your work on the easy problems as much as on the harder ones.
Incubation, or, I Can’t Move to the Next One Until I Solve This One
Incubation isn’t a bias. It’s a way to protect against biases. Think back to the song title example. When your brain was in L mode, what was it that finally made you see B? Putting the problem aside. When you come back to the problem after thinking of other things, it’s easier to cut through dangerous preconceptions.
Oftentimes when I am working on a difficult problem, the solution feels so close that I want to keep working until I find it. I don’t want to forget the progress I’ve made, even when the progress is in the wrong direction. If you get stuck on a tricky SAT problem, even if you think you almost have it, try taking a break: it may be much easier when you come back. Even if you think you have an answer correct, it is a good idea to check your work and look at your solutions with fresh eyes.
Cognitive biases are a fact of life, but their effect can be limited. It just takes practice and a little bit of self-awareness. The difference in your score could be astounding.
Solution to the Candle Problem
The key is in realizing that the “box of thumbtacks” is really two things: a box, and thumbtacks. First, thumbtack the box to the wall. Then, place the candle inside the box. The wax will drip on the cardboard, not the floor.