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Pre-suasive Test Preparation

Pre-suasive Test Preparation

In Pre-suasion, influence expert Robert Cialdini describes how little (and seemingly inconsequential) things prime our brain for being persuaded. Although the book is primarily aimed at those who want to exercise influence (or learn how to avoid being unethically influenced) there are a number of interesting takeaways for test takers.

The central premise of the book is that by directing one's attention in a desired direction "primes" the brain to receive a certain message. We evolved to direct our attention toward important things, and therefore our brain believes anything we are focusing on must be important. Motivational posters, for example of a runner crossing the finish line, have been shown to increase achievement among those who were shown the photo prior to executing a task.

Cialdini discusses a fellow student who, despite seeming of normal intelligence in most ways, consistently scored in the top percentile on standardized tests. One element of the success came down to basic test-taking skills such as answering all of the easiest questions first, rather than tackling all questions in order. However, he also used the time before the exam to focus his attention toward positive, and away from negative connotations.

For example, most people use the time immediately before an exam (or during breaks) to review material they are having trouble with. Instead, the master test taker believed focusing on problems would increase anxiety and hurt performance. Instead, he focused on past successes and areas of strength. He believed the resulting confidence not only helped him to think clearly, but also to be more persistent when dealing with the trickier problems.

Cialdini also discusses studies related to the performance of women in STEM fields. There is a prevailing societal stereotype that women are not as good as men at math. Although this stereotype is a myth, the research shows that drawing attention to this belief in any way does reduce their performance in math, possibly by a loss of confidence or possibly by focusing attention away from the task at hand and toward something that should be irrelevant. In the most interesting example, a group of Asian women took an exam. Prior to taking the exam, each filled out a demographic section. Those who were asked to identify their gender (reinforcing a negative stereotype) before the exam did much worse than students asked to identify their ethnicity (which reinforced a positive stereotype that Asians are good at math.) Regardless of your own gender or ethnicity, it seems a focus before any exam on reasons that you might be expected to succeed is far preferable to a focus on reasons you may do poorly.

Another potentially effective tool Cialdini discusses is the if/when...then approach. These are statements designed to draw our attention to certain cues in everyday life, and use them as pre-suasive calls to beneficial action. One example might be "if I have a sudden business trip... then I will study on the airplane." These statements are superior to generic goal setting because they cause us to be on the lookout for situations that might normally derail our goal, and instead cause us to make desired progress or take desired actions.

Do you have rituals to pre-suade yourself into passing an exam? Please share them in the comment section.

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