October 9, 2020

The Negative Effects of Being Conditioned to Think there’s only “One Right Answer.”


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Remember taking tests where you had to write a thoughtful response, consider how you arrived at that response, and support your thoughts?

In school, they were called short-answer or essay tests. With short-answer tests, there was freedom and beauty in providing a full explanation. We could spend time thinking about a response and explain our thoughts.

Unfortunately, there is an entire generation where tests, from elementary school through college, have been multiple-choice. The short-answer and essay tests have been phased out and so too has the ability to explain and justify thoughts, expressions, and answers.

While multiple-choice tests have made grading simple for teachers and professors, it has forced millions of people to answer questions thinking there is only one right answer.

Think about the impacts of 17 years of schooling and test-taking where a student must choose A, B, or C.  One, and only one, of those answers is correct. Yes, occasionally “all of the above” is an option, but seldom is it the right answer.

I was reading an article, published in The Wall Street Journal in July, titled “As $600-a-Week Jobless Aid Nears End, Congress Faces a Quandary.” It was thoughtfully written by professional journalists. The article provides various viewpoints related to the impact of the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit.

The journalists share a story of the person who was laid off in March from a job that paid $550 per week. She was able to receive $850 a week in state and federal unemployment payments, and saved $1,500 to help when the unemployment benefits were to run out.

The article also highlights a call center operator who passed on a contract with the need to hire 500 people ramping up to 3,500. The company did not feel they could hire sufficient workers to support the contract, given their rate of pay was lower than what was being paid by the state and federal unemployment program.

There was a third story in the article, where a beauty salon owner was hoping for an extension of unemployment benefits so her clientele would continue to support her small business.

When I read the article, I felt compassion for each of these cases. I thought to myself, if this article were a multiple-choice test, the answer would be “all of the above.”

Unfortunately, most readers are conditioned to pick one. And once they pick A, B, or C, they are committed to that answer. In today’s conversations, there is little discussion around the attributes of each answer or different positions, and there is limited openness to the potential that several options have merit and are correct.

With The Wall Street Journal article, all three of these cases are important and compelling and need to be considered when making the final choice.

There is a social dichotomy taking place: the world is increasingly blending, while a whole generation was raised to “choose one.” Political parties are farther apart than ever, yet the general population is more blended or centric in their lives and their thinking. Work and home life are blended as technology and COVID-19 influence how work is done. There are multiple generations living under one roof and families are racially blended more than at any other time in history.

We should be celebrating and embracing this “blendification” of the world. Rather, there is social turmoil and opposition to almost everything, no matter what side you are on. Could this (at least in part) stem from years of being conditioned to “choose one” with no need to back up the answer?

Going back to the multiple-choice and short-answer test comparison, when students are forced to choose one answer—A, B, or C—it is not necessary to provide justification or even devote serious thought to their choice. They simply fill in or click on a bubble and move to the next question.

When someone spends time articulating a response, they think more deeply about the concept and can defend their position. Short-answers and essays create productive thoughts and internal dialogue. This is the essence of creative thinking. Have we lost that ability to creatively support our views and participate in productive dialogue that considers the answer may be blended?

I am not suggesting that all of society’s problems are the result of multiple-choice tests. However, it makes me think that years of conditioning around choosing one answer, without having the confidence or need to back up the answer, must have some corresponding negative social impact.

When talking about unemployment benefits, COVID-19 response, healthcare, or any other politically charged topic, it is necessary to consider that there is not one answer that is absolutely correct. Whatever the answer is, at best, it is only partially correct, and there will always be negative ramifications.

This requires us to have support for answers with more depth of thinking that considers all of the impacts and ramifications.

Regrettably, that is not what is being taught in our schools.


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