Answering multiple choice questions (using psychology)


This article will discuss how to answer multiple choice questions using psychology-related concepts.

I have appeared in numerous multiple-choice type tests over the course of my educational career. When you do the same thing over and over you understand new things about it or at least look at it in a different way. 

I noticed that there are some patterns in these types of questions- patterns that, if you knew them, could increase the chances of you selecting the right option.

First off, it’s always best to actually know things. The methods that I’ll be discussing in this article should be applied only when you have absolutely no idea about the correct option and can’t figure it out even with the use of elimination.

Say you’re stuck on a multiple choice type question in a test. If you don’t know the answer you start applying your reasoning. You’re like, “If this and this is true then that must also be true.” If your reasoning is correct you’ll solve the question accurately.

However, accurate reasoning will depend on your knowledge level of the topic on which the question is based. 

If you don’t know much about the topic you’re very likely to choose the wrong option no matter how elaborate your reasoning.

When I came across questions that I had no idea about, I thought, “How can I figure out the right answer using psychology- the thing I do know a little something about instead of engaging in false reasoning?”         

I went further with the thought:

“Okay, this question was formulated by a human and humans have certain ways of thinking. Is there anything in human psychology that I can use to increase my chances of figuring out the right option?”

After much hit and trial, I came to the conclusion that there are two techniques that can be helpful in improving the chances of selecting the right option:

Odd one out

In a test that I appeared in recently, I came across a question that went something like this:

Q. Increase in the economic development of one sector can lead to a decline in other sectors. What is this phenomenon called?

1) British disease
2) French disease
3) Dutch disease
4) Italian disease

I had absolutely no idea about it and I knew all too well the perils of engaging in knowledge-deprived reasoning. So, I decided to do some out-of-the-box thinking.

I used two psychology-related concepts to try and arrive at the correct answer- perceptual grouping and evoked set (used in Consumer Behaviour). Perceptual grouping means that when we group things together we tend to do so on the basis of similarity and proximity. 

Evoked set, on the other hand, is a related concept from Marketing that refers to the list of products we strongly associate with a product category. 

For example, when you read or hear the phrase ‘soft drinks’ (product category) you’re likely to think of Coca-Cola and Pepsi (which comprise the evoked set). Coca-Cola and Pepsi come to your mind more readily than all those other little known soft drinks that you may or may not have consumed.

What has all this got to do with the above multiple-choice question?

Well, notice that the countries mentioned are all European and fairly close to each other, geographically. The questioner has indeed grouped the options on the basis of similarity, and to a fair degree, proximity. 

Next, we need to figure out the option around which the other options were grouped. Think about what options you would use if you were the questioner in this situation. 

Say you knew that the correct option was British disease. In trying to think of other options to place in the question, you’d probably recall countries similar and near to Britain, according to the concepts of perceptual grouping and evoked set.

The same would be the case if the correct option (around which you group other options) was any other option in the question except…Dutch disease! 

Why on earth would you put the word ‘Dutch’ in the options? It’s not the name of some country but refers to people and things belonging to The Netherlands which, on top of it, has another name- Holland. 

See how different Dutch is from the other options? There’s no way the questioner’s mind would have thought of it if, say, British disease was the right answer and he was trying to group together countries similar to British. I’m not saying it’s impossible but the chances are ridiculously low. The same is true for French and Italian.

If ‘Dutch’ had no business being there it means the questioner was forced to put it there. And why would the questioner put it there? Because it’s the correct option. 

While formulating this question, the questioner probably had this statement before him from a book or something: Increase in the economic development of one sector leads to a decline in other sectors is called Dutch disease.

With Dutch in hand, the questioner thought of countries to group together with Dutch. He probably knew that The Netherlands is a European country and so his mind, working on the default mode, evoked a set of other European countries.

I later found out that ‘Dutch disease’ was indeed the correct option and I had figured out one more correct answer using similar logic.

In a similar manner, if you have number-based options like this:

Q. Blah Blah Blah… What is the required quantity?

1) 88
2) 73
3) 68
4) 64.67

The probability of 64.67 being the correct option is way more because this is hardly a number that you randomly think of when you know that 88, 73 or 68 is the correct option. 

multiple-choice questions psychology
When teachers don’t care about their subjects and students, the students are forced to look for alternative ways to get through college.

Law of length

This technique applies to questions where the options are statements. The statement that is long and detailed compared to the other statements is likely to be the correct option.

This is because lying is not easy. It’s hard to fabricate a long-winded and articulate statement if it’s not based on facts, especially if you have loads of questions to formulate. It requires time and effort. 

Conversely, you can dive into the details of truth with ease, even if you have less time. This holds true for day-to-day conversations as well.

Final words

I have cleared some complex Engineering papers with the help of these techniques and I’m sure, no matter what field you’re in, these techniques and this way of thinking can be beneficial for you.

There’s no substitute for actual subject-related learning but a few hacks that may help you squeeze out those few additional points in exams where sometimes even a single point can make all the difference.

Remember that your examiner is human. Start from there and think of ways to make use of the biases in their thinking.