In the Form of a Question, Please

Saturday, May 06, 2006

By Wray Herbert

It’s Final Jeopardy, and you’re in a dead heat with the two other contestants. The category is American History (yes!), and Alex reveals the Final Jeopardy answer: George Washington was elected president of the United States in this year. Uh-oh. You don’t know for sure. There is a lot of money at stake, and you have two kids in college. You’re going to have to make an educated guess. Doo-doo-doo-doo . . .

So how do you come up with your best guess? Believe it or not, psychologists have been studying how we make educated guesses longer than Jeopardy has been on TV, so by now they have a fairly sophisticated theory about the mental strategy most people use. It’s called the “anchor-and-adjustment” strategy, which translated means this: When we don’t have the precise answer we need stored in our memory, we use the next best thing, a factual “anchor.” None of us knows when the father of our country was actually elected (whew!), but most of us have memorized some other facts. We probably know, for example, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

Okay, 1776, so that’s at least a starting point. But you know it’s not a game winner, and the clock is ticking. So beginning with that mental anchor, you start adjusting. Was it the next year, 1777? Five years later? Could it have been as much as 20 years later? What the hell was going on in those years anyway? In your mind you come up with a range of plausible answers, moving away from the anchor, and as time runs out you jot down the best of the possibilities.

This basic idea has been studied and reworked for decades, and is holy writ for most cognitive psychologists. But it still leaves a lot of questions begging for answers, most notably: Why are our educated guesses wrong a lot of the time? Two psychologists—Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell—ran a couple experiments recently to refine the theory and see if they could answer this question.

They had students reason out George Washington’s election date, and they also had them ponder other Jeopardy-like facts. For instance, in the category of Animal Mothers: the number of months a pregnant elephant carries her baby before birth. In the Potent Potables category: the freezing point of vodka. What they found, and report in the April issue of Psychological Science, is that the anchor exerts a kind of cognitive drag on the mind as it tries to adjust, so that the farther one gets from the anchor, the harder it is to keep adjusting. As a result, what the students did was adjust as far as they could, until they reached a date plausible enough to settle for. Researchers call this “satisficing”—as in, satisfying enough to suffice.

Epley and Gilovich did a few more experiments to see if they could explain satisficing. In one, they used a standard psychological test to sort out the most reflective students from the least, figuring that the ones who tended to mull things over would do better at guessing. In a second experiment, they asked the same questions of students who had spent the day boozing (Cornell students, no comment) and compared them to sober students. Finally, they did the laboratory version of Jeopardy with some students who were distracted and others who were not. They found, not surprisingly, that the reflective students did better at adjusting their guesses and approximating the actual date, as did the sober students and the less distracted students. Bottom line: Making education guesses takes a lot of mental effort, and many things can sabotage that effort.

But, hey, this is Jeopardy. You’re a reflective type, or you wouldn’t be even be up there. You sure didn’t need a psychologist to tell you not to have a martini before testing your wits on national television, and the only thing competing for your attention this moment is George Washington’s election. You anchor, you adjust, you take your best shot: What is 1788?

We’ve got a new Jeopardy champion.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:24 PM


At 8:28 PM , Blogger dharma said...

Good site.

Thank you very much

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