Is That Your Final Answer?

Beating game shows takes more than smarts: Contestants must also overcome self-doubt and peer pressure. Two studies suggest today's hottest game shows are particularly challenging because the very mechanisms employed to help contestants actually lead them astray.

Multiple-choice questions are one such offender, as alternative answers seem to make test-takers ignore gut instincts. To learn why, researchers at Southern Methodist University (SMU) gave two identical tests: one using multiple-choice questions and the other fill-in-the-blank. The results, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, show that test-takers were incorrect more often when given false alternatives and that the longer they considered those alternatives, the more credible the answers looked.

"If you sit and stew, you forget that you know the right answer," says Alan Brown, Ph.D., a psychology professor at SMU. "Trusting your first impulse is your best strategy."

Audiences can also be trouble, says Jennifer Butler, Ph.D., a Wittenberg University psychology professor. Her study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that contestants who see audience participation as peer pressure slow down to avoid making embarrassing mistakes. But this strategy backfires, as more contemplation produces more wrong answers. Worse, Butler says, if perceived peer pressure grows unbearable, contestants may opt out of answering at all, "thinking that it's better to stop than to have your once supportive audience come to believe you're an idiot."

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