6 Easy Experiments to try at Work #4 Guess what comes next

When you’re asked a question do you try to guess the answer? Or do you encourage others to guess if you’ve asked a question? Is it good practice memoryto guess or is there a danger that people might guess the wrong answer and then remember it?

It seems, perhaps counter-intuitively, that we learn better after guessing, even if we’ve guessed a wrong answer first. A study from University of California, Los Angeles put this to the test. They found that so long as the correct answer is given fairly swiftly after an incorrect guess then the memory for the correct answer persists, even when they were tested after 61 hours.

We recently put this theory to the test in our own ‘Masterclass’ workshop and it was fascinating. In our experiment we were asked a quiz question and told to guess the answer. Then if we weren’t right we then made a guess at four options. Finally the answer was revealed. Whilst it wasn’t scientifically rigorous our experiment showed we still remembered the correct answers 4 hours later; and were more accurate when we’d guessed the answer wrong initially rather than when we’d guessed it right. Thank you very much to Sue Daly of Resolution for Change for putting the work into doing this experiment.

The current explanation for this finding seems to be what’s called “semantic activation”; whereby a mental ‘web’ of knowledge and facts associated with the correct answer is activated and leads to more effective storage of the correct information. The researchers said “The basic idea is that this [guessing-related] activation … affords a richer encoding of the subsequently presented target”.

So next time you want someone to remember something at work don’t just tell them and expect them to remember. Ask them a question and ask them to guess. The research shows they’ll remember your information more accurately if you encourage them to guess first before revealing the correct information. And it doesn’t even matter if they guess wrongly at first so long as you present the correct information quickly after the guess; in fact it may make them more accurate later.

Yan, V., Yu, Y., Garcia, M., & Bjork, R. (2014). Why does guessing incorrectly enhance, rather than impair, retention? Memory & Cognition, 42 (8), 1373-1383