In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize-winning economist outlines our “two selves”—our fast, intuitive brain that leaps to quick judgments (what he calls System 1), and our slow, methodical brain that we need to perform a calculation such as 243 x 849 (what he calls System 2). System 2 is inherently lazier than System 1, and it would prefer not to do work if it doesn’t have to—a fact you may have noticed if you saw 243 x 849, and groaned audibly.
After reading this fascinating book, I’ve come to believe that standardized tests are not just a math test or just a verbal test. They’re also a test of how well a student can “slow down” or ignore her System 1—that part of her brain that leaps to quick, intuitive (and often wrong) judgments—and how well she can engage the slower, more methodical (and more lethargic) System 2, which is necessary to actually solve the problems on the test. In fact, the test-makers know this, and they’re brilliant at creating trap answers that are craftily designed to exploit your System 1 intuition, which is so often incorrect. What do I mean by this? To illustrate, try this example, care of Kahneman:
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10.
The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.
How much is the ball?
Spoiler alert: The answer isn’t ten cents. But if you thought ten cents, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company: many MIT and Princeton undergraduates still said ten cents. In all likelihood, “ten cents” flashes across the mind of anyone who is asked this question—even the respondents who get the question right. No one is immune to the false intuitions of our fast-moving, System 1 brain. However, what differentiates the correct respondents is that they remain skeptical of their intuition, and they force themselves to slow down and examine the question with the rigor of their more careful, calculating System 2 brain. The thought process might go something like this:
Okay, so the ball costs $0.10. Wait. If the question were that easy, why would this smartypants even bother asking me? Let’s slow down and really look at this. If the ball is really $0.10, and the bat is a dollar more, that would make the bat $1.10. But of course that can’t be right, since together they would cost $1.20—and that’s too high. So my intuition was wrong. However, it wasn’t entirely useless—because $1.20 is too high, I now know the ball has to cost less than $0.10. In fact, it must cost $0.05, because that would make the bat cost $1.05. Together, they cost $1.10. Solved!
My bet would be that a thought process along these lines occurs inside the brain of anyone who gets the problem right. I bring it up here to hopefully dispel one of the most common and pernicious misconceptions many of us have around standardized tests—namely, that the smartest students are simply gifted with some superhuman intuition that is capable of knowing the right answer instantly, as if they possessed a kind of flawless System 1. Luckily for us mere mortals, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the best test-takers aren’t superhuman at all. In truth, they’re just better at slowing down.
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