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If You Don’t Know, Guess!





Many years ago, when I was in school, we would occasionally get a test where you lost more points if you got the wrong answer than if you left the item blank. In essence, there was a penalty for guessing. I could never understand why. Perhaps my thinking in that regard may have been one of my first steps on the way to a career in psychology. Or maybe, I had been traumatized by losing extra points for an answer that I had consciously figured out and made sense to me, but it was wrong (I don’t know that to be the case because I don’t remember such an occurrence – but that may be evidence of trauma).

Early in my career as a psychologist, when I was doing a fair amount of individual intelligence testing, the rules would permit me to encourage a student to try rather than giving up on an item too quickly. Occasionally, however, I would run into someone whose response was along the lines of, “I was taught that if I don’t know, don’t guess”.

That’s a terrible lesson! A valid test should be a sample of real life. A student who doesn’t guess on a test will likely choose safety rather than risk-taking in other aspects of life – even when the consequences of the risk are no worse than the consequences of not trying. There are people who spend their lifetimes working at unsatisfying jobs that they know they can handle because of a lack of confidence in their ability to pursue their real interests. Some miss out on potentially great romantic relationships because they reject opportunities to date someone whom they regard as being “out of my league”. And some cheat the world out of really knowing them and the contributions that they can make because of fear and embarrassment about the possibility of embarrassment and fear that what they have to contribute isn’t good enough.

There are obvious risks that are not worth taking because the consequences of failure are too great, and there are some risks that are not worth taking because safety and security is a stronger held value. Taking a risk just because it’s risky doesn’t make sense. But it is important to also notice that many of the greatest accomplishments in the world have been made by people who were willing to guess, and guess wrong, and not be deterred from guessing again.

And one more thing is important to note. If guessing and risk-taking becomes a part of your mentality, you learn to develop strategies that enable you to make more educated guesses, rather than wild guesses, and your guess “hit rate” increases over time – as does your confidence.





Ron Kaiser, Ph.D. Psychologist, Educator, Author, Podcaster

Ron Kaiser, Ph.D., is a positive health psychologist, coach, author, podcaster, educator, consultant, and speaker. He has been in practice for more than five decades, including 25 years as Director of Psychology at the world-famous Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University. As an innovative thought leader in the field, he has developed the concepts of THE MENTAL HEALTH GYM, GOAL-ACHIEVING PSYCHOTHERAPY (GAP), THE TYPE P PERSONALITY, and REJUVENAGING®.

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