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How Guessing Works


Factors That Affect Guessing Accuracy
The principal lobes of the brain are the frontal (yellow), temporal (green), parietal (pink) and occipital (red) lobes. The cerebellum (purple) controls muscle coordination, balance and posture. Science Photo Library/Getty Images
The principal lobes of the brain are the frontal (yellow), temporal (green), parietal (pink) and occipital (red) lobes. The cerebellum (purple) controls muscle coordination, balance and posture. Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Clearly, guessing is not static across the board. There are many types of guessing, including:

Wild guesses – Occasionally we do throw caution by the wayside and venture a guess off the top of our heads, with zero outside information or input (hopefully, not about something too important).

Educated guesses – This is the "middle ground" of guessing, in which people tend to choose a ballpark figure based on having some information (as opposed to picking a number at random).

Estimating – People have information that is going to inform their answers, such as knowledge about the likely distance, volume or past behavior that are valuable tools in determining the guess.

Intuition is not exactly a form of guessing, but it does play a role, even if you're not aware that you have the information squirreled away in your brain. "From a brain or neurologic perspective there can be implicit or unconscious recall in the memory that is not in your awareness, but is informing your guess," Saltz says of intuition. "Most guesses are leaning toward something because of implicit memories and unconscious information."

A large part of that is knowing what affects our guesses in the first place. "The problem sometimes with guessing is that one can conjure up a memory that may not be accurate, but may feel really accurate," Saltz says.

Incorrect memories aren't the only things keeping us from venturing accurate guesses. Emotional state and ties can also get in the way. Saltz explains that people with high anxiety or who are risk averse tend to have trouble with accurate guesses of others' emotions. Also, if you have a significant emotional connection to one potential answer, it's the one most likely to "pop out," making you think it's the correct answer, when in fact, the emotional tie is coloring your view.

Certain people also inherently have skill sets that make them better at some kinds of guesses. Consider a scenario when you're trying to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar at a county fair. People with superior math and spatial relation abilities will likely come closer to the correct answer than people with other strengths.

While you probably won't ever learn to guess with 100 percent accuracy, there are ways to fine-tune the skill.


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