10 Study Fallacies and How Not to Fall for Them

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With most things in life, you can experiment until you find out what works best.

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If you’re trying to perfect a recipe or fine-tune your essay technique, you can afford to get it wrong a few times before you work out the method that’s right for you. But important exams don’t come around all that often, and you can’t necessarily afford to take a chance, even if you would learn something useful from it.
It’s all the harder because the kind of long-term, strategic thinking that succeeding in exams requires isn’t really what human brains are adapted for. Think about that moment when you get into the exam. Your heart is pounding, your mind is racing and every muscle is on edge. You are, in fact, in perfect condition either to run for your life or make the wild animal chasing you regret its very existence. Unfortunately, neither of those is much use when you’ve got to write a three-page essay on the importance of the Christian afterlife in Hamlet – and it might even be easier to concentrate if your heart rate slowed down just a little.
There are several different ways in which our instinctive ways of thinking and behaving let us down when it comes to studying and exams. Here are ten of them, and what you can do to beat them.

1. Planning fallacy

Image shows a man drawing a plan on a whiteboard.
Accurate planning makes all the difference.

The planning fallacy is the logical fallacy that most often applies to revision. When we estimate how long something will take us, we usually pick the best-case scenario (even when we think we’re being entirely realistic). Even pessimistic predictions can end up being wide of the mark. This is why the module that you thought would take you two days to go through ends up taking the best part of the week.
How you deal with this depends on what you have to revise and what learning style suits you. You could figure out how long you think revision will take you, at the absolute most, and double it. You could take the most important bits of each module first, and if you haven’t covered everything by the end of the time you’ve allotted, you could go on to the next thing and only go back over everything else if there’s time later on. Pick any solution – just make sure to take this typical human flaw into account.

2. Typical mind fallacy

Image shows an FMRI scan.
Don’t assume everyone’s mind works like yours.

Typical mind fallacy is – as the name would suggest – the belief that everyone thinks in the same way as you do. So if you were to ask a group of people to think of a cat, some might be able to picture a real cat in remarkable detail, while others might have the half-formed outline of a cat in their minds, like in a dream. Others might picture the word ‘cat’, written out, or translated into their mother tongue, while others still might have a set of synaesthetic impressions of a cat – smells, tastes, colours or music that might not be inherently cat-like but that sum up a cat within their own minds. But the automatic assumption of most people is that whatever it is that they think of, everyone else is thinking of the same thing.
This has significance when it comes to conveying information – particularly creating and sharing notes. One person might benefit from long lists of facts, another from mind-maps and a third from information presented as images. Remember this if someone close to you is insisting that mind-maps are the answer to every study difficulty and you can’t learn from them at all; what’s effective for one person might be useless for another.

3. Mind projection fallacy

Image shows a box of chocolate.
Chocolate is – surprisingly – not inherently delicious.

A related fallacy is mind projection fallacy. This is the false belief that because something is a certain way to you, then it must be that way inherently. A classic example is “chocolate is delicious”; correctly, it’s that you think that chocolate is delicious. There is nothing inherently delicious about chocolate, and to a dog, it’s poison.
Part of this is presenting opinion as fact, which can be a particular problem in the context of a subjective subject such as English Literature, or even something like History. One person’s tyrant is another person’s strong ruler. But more than that, this fallacy can affect your attitude to whole subjects. The statement “Physics is hard” is widely held to be true, but it’s just as much an example of mind projection fallacy as “chocolate is delicious”. If Physics is easy for you, changing your behaviour because someone else thinks it’s hard is going to mess up your ability to study for it, whether it’s because you procrastinate over it or allocate more time to it than an “easier” subject that you should have worked harder on.

4. Google effect

Image shows Google results for 'search engine'.
Search engines have changed the way our memories work.

The way our memories work is surprisingly adaptable. People with no means of storing written information (such as the illiterate) can remember a colossal amount. People who can store written information are less good at remembering large amounts of it, but can remember where to find the information they need. Couples often find that they can remember all the information they need between the two of them, but not individually – so one partner might not know where to find certain household objects because they know, consciously or otherwise, that it’s in the memory of the other.
But in the last decade or so, we’ve developed a new tool for memorisation, which is that we don’t remember information that we know can easily be retrieved by search engines. In our daily lives, we know that information about country capitals, exchange rates or even directions can be looked up quickly and easily online – so we are much less likely to retain it. In an exam, with no Google to hand, this is an obvious problem. The solution is simple: just ensure that you really, thoroughly revise those little details – character names, dates, important terms – that might slip out of your mind otherwise.

5. Illusory superiority

Image shows a row of tickboxes where excellent, good and average are the only options.
This is how we classify ourselves.

Are you of above average intelligence? Honesty? Popularity? Health? Most people say that they are above average at most things, but with a median average this is logically impossible: half of everyone has to be below average at each thing. This fallacy is called illusory superiority: the tendency to believe that even if we aren’t exceptional at a trait, we are at least above average. It’s affected by gender and cultural background; men from Western countries are more likely to experience this effect – but it’s far from unique to them.
Why is this a problem when you’re studying? Simply because being able to assess your own abilities accurately is a vital skill for revision. For instance, if your teacher has provided exercises for people who are particularly struggling with a topic, but you refuse to think of yourself as struggling, you might miss out on work that you would benefit from doing.

6. Gambler’s fallacy

Image shows a roulette wheel.
This should not inspire your revision style.

Let’s say you toss a fair coin 10 times. It comes up tails the first time, and then comes up heads the next nine times. If you were to toss it an eleventh time, would it be more likely to come up heads or tails?
If your study of statistics is up to scratch, you’ll know that the answer is that it’s still a 50-50 chance. If the coin is fair, even if it comes up heads 99 times in a row – or 999 times in a row – the likelihood of it coming up tails remains 50%. Yet even when we understand this rationally, it still seems counter-intuitive. That’s what keeps gamblers going back to a losing table – because they believe that if they’ve lost three or four or five times in a row, the next time they must be due a win.
In much the same way, if you’ve failed an exam repeatedly, you might think that it’ll be third time lucky, or that you’re due some success – but unfortunately that’s not how it works, and if you’re struggling repeatedly, you’d be better off changing your approach than keeping going with something that doesn’t work.

7. Hyperbolic discounting

Image shows a calendar with a date circled.
We don’t value future rewards accurately.

This fallacy has a complicated name but is relatively simple to understand. Imagine you’ve been offered the choice between receiving five bonus marks on your next essay, or ten bonus marks on an essay you write next year. A lot of people will choose to receive the lower marks now rather than waiting.
Now imagine you’ve been offered the choice between receiving five bonus marks on an essay you write next year, and ten bonus marks on an essay you write the year after. The amount of time that has elapsed between the two essays is the same, but the overwhelming majority of people will choose the second option.
In other words, we are bad at estimating the value of things that are happening in the future relative to things that are happening right now. When you’re studying, you might overestimate the desirability of going to a party tomorrow compared to the desirability of all the parties you might be going to once study leave is over – and you can see the bad decisions that might arise from that.

8. Sunk cost fallacy

Image shows a scrunched-up piece of paper next to a pen.
Know when to persevere – and when to try something else instead.

People don’t often walk out of bad movies. When we’ve committed the price of a ticket (plus drink and popcorn) and an hour or more of our time to something, we are very unwilling to give up on it – even if the film is absolutely terrible. This is called sunk cost fallacy: the reluctance to give up on something even if it’s bad, or not working, because that feels like a waste of the time and effort already put into it. It’s the phenomenon that leads to people throwing good money after bad, or staying in unhappy relationships because giving up feels like a betrayal of the years already spent together.
This is one to be particularly aware of when studying. If you have a choice of modules – say between studying the English Reformation under Henry VIII or Elizabeth I’s foreign policy – and you’ve spent several hours poring over the composition of the Spanish Armada and the voyages of Sir Walter Raleigh but you just can’t get your head around it, it can be very hard to decide to pack it all in and look at the dissolution of the monasteries instead. Obviously, don’t be encouraged to give up too easily – but don’t carry on struggling with an impossible task when you’d be better off starting again with something else.

9. False consensus effect

Image shows a group study outside.
Group scenarios make us want to agree with each other.

We’ve written before about the value of study groups, but working in a group brings with it a whole set of problems of its own, two of which we’ll look at as the last fallacies in this list. The first is false consensus effect: the tendency to overestimate the extent to which other people agree with us, or how significant the overlap is between our views and theirs. It’s easy to see why this is advantageous: humans are social animals, and tending to believe that others agree with us more than they actually do is a good way to avoid unnecessary fights.
But in a study group, this handy trait is not exactly helpful. After all, you work in a study group partly so that if there are any really egregious errors in your thinking that your teacher hasn’t picked up on, your friends will do you the kindness of pointing them out. Yet if your socially-adapted brain insists on interpreting a major-level disagreement as a minor disparity in otherwise overlapping views, then you’re likely to go into the exam making all the same mistakes. Beat this one by working on group communication, for instance simply making sure to ask, “do you think that is along the right lines, or is it completely wrong?” Even a highly consensus-seeking mind isn’t going to be able to ignore the answer to that.

10. Shared information bias

Image shows a study group working with a whiteboard.
Scheduling time well can help mitigate study fallacies.

Another major advantage of group study is that if the field of study is large, group members can all cover different parts of it, and then report back to the group. So if you’re looking at, say, Victorian novels, one of you might cover North and South, while another reads Middlemarch and a third tackles Jane Eyre. And you all read Hard Times, because it’s quite short.
Unfortunately, shared information bias suggests that you’re much more likely to spend time talking about Hard Times than any of the others. In a group, we prefer talking about information that everyone knows rather than information that hasn’t been shared with the group. There are various psychological explanations for this – such as the idea that talking about shared information makes reaching consensus quicker, and as point 9 shows, we love reaching consensus – but it makes intuitive sense too, in much the same way that gossiping about someone you know is much more interesting than gossiping about someone you don’t.
Like many of these fallacies, awareness is half the cure. You could, for instance, set time limits – in your hour-long study meeting, you could assign 12 minutes to each of North and South, Middlemarch and Jane Eyre, 10 minutes to Hard Times and the rest to a comparison between all four novels: thereby ensuring that Hard Times doesn’t get an undue amount of time dedicated to it.
Are there other study fallacies that you’ve struggled with? What did you do to overcome them? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: banner; planning; FMRI; chocolate; Google; average; gambling; calendar; giving up; group; group II.