A Trick For Higher SAT scores? Unfortunately no.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a simple trick to score better on college entrance exams like the SAT and other tests?


There is a reputable claim that such a trick exists. Unfortunately, the trick does not appear to be real.


This is the story of an academic paper where I am a co-author with possible lessons for life both inside and outside the Academy.


png;base642968fe44110dd3fdIn the spring of 2012, I was reading Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Professor Kahneman discussed an intriguing finding that people score higher on a test if the questions are hard to read. The particular test used in the study is the CRT or cognitive reflection task invented by Shane Frederick of Yale. The CRT itself is interesting, but what Professor Kahneman wrote was amazing to me,

2012年春,我读了诺贝尔奖获得者Daniel Kahneman的书《思考,快与慢》。Kahneman教授讨论了一个非常有趣的发现,如果考试时的问题很难看清,人们得分就会更高。这一研究中用到的具体考试,是由耶鲁大学的Shane Frederick发明的“认知反应任务”(CRT)【译注:应为“认知反应测试”,原文有误】。CRT本身很有意思,但Kahneman教授的说法更是令我惊愕。

“90% of the students who saw the CRT in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible. You read this correctly: performance was better with the bad font.”


I thought this was so cool. The idea is simple, powerful, and easy to grasp. An oyster makes a pearl by reacting to the irritation of a grain of sand. Body builders become huge by lifting more weight. Can we kick our brains into a higher gear, by making the problem harder?


png;base64ff53b96183f53427Malcolm Gladwell also thought the result was cool. Here is his description his book, David and Goliath:

Malcolm Gladwell也觉得这个结论很爽。以下是他在《大卫与歌利亚》一书中的描述:

The CRT is really hard. But here’s the strange thing. Do you know the easiest way to raise people’s scores on the test? Make it just a little bit harder. The psychologists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer tried this a few years ago with a group of undergraduates at Princeton University. First they gave the CRT the normal way, and the students averaged 1.9 correct answers out of three. That’s pretty good, though it is well short of the 2.18 that MIT students averaged. Then Alter and Oppenheimer printed out the test questions in a font that was really hard to read … The average score this time around? 2.45. Suddenly, the students were doing much better than their counterparts at MIT.

“CRT真是很难。但这里有个怪事。要提高人们的考试得分,你知道什么方法最简单吗?只需把考题整得更难一点。心理学家Adam Alter和Daniel Oppenheimer几年前在普林斯顿大学拿一群本科生做过实验。首先他们用常规方式搞了一次CRT考试,学生平均表现是3道题里做对1.9道。很不错,但比起麻省理工学生平均做对2.18道可差远了。然后Alter和Oppenheimer用一种很难辨读的字体打印了测试问题……这次的平均得分?2.45。学生们突然就比麻省理工的对手要强了。”

png;base6483d2eaf734995958As I read Professor Kahneman’s description, I looked at the clock and realized I was teaching a class in about an hour, and the class topic for the day was related to this study. I immediately created two versions of the CRT and had my students take the test – half with an easy to read presentation and half with a hard to read version.


(1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost? _____ cents

(1) 球棒和球共需1.1美元。球棒比球要贵1美元。请问球需多少美分?

(1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost? _____ cents (in my experiment, I used Haettenschweiler – I do not know how to get blogger to display Haettenschweiler).

(1) 球棒和球共需1.1美元。球棒比球要贵1美元。请问球需多少美分?(考试中,此处用的是Haettenschweiler字体)

Within 3 hours of reading about the idea in Professor Kahneman’s book, I had my own data in the form of the scores from 20 students. Unlike the study described by Professor Kahneman, however, my students did not perform any better statistically with the hard-to-read version. I emailed Shane Frederick at Yale with my story and data, and he responded that he was doing further research on the topic.

在读过Kahneman教授书中的观点后不到三小时,我就拿到了自己的数据——20个学生的成绩。不过,跟Kahneman教授所述研究不同,统计上而言,我的学生在难读版测试中并没有表现更好。我把我的故事和数据邮寄给了耶鲁的Shane Frederic,他当时说他正在就此问题做进一步研究。

Roughly 3 years later, Andrew Meyer, Shane Frederick, and 8 other authors (including me) have published a paper that argues the hard-to-read presentation does not lead to higher performance.

大概三年以后,Andrew Meyer, Shane Frederick及其他8名作者(包括我)发表了一篇论文,论证说,难读的试题并不会带来更好的成绩。

The original paper reached its conclusions based on the test scores of 40 people. In our paper, we analyze a total of over 7,000 people by looking at the original study and 16 additional studies. Our summary:


Easy-to-read average score: 1.433 (17 studies, 3,657 people)

Hard-to-read average score: 1.423 (17 studies, 3,710 people)



Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “Do you know the easiest way to raise people’s scores on the test? Make it just a little bit harder.” The data suggest that Malcolm Gladwell’s statement is false. Here is the key figure from our paper with my annotations in red:

Malcolm Gladwell写道,“人们要想提高考试得分,你知道什么方法最简单吗?把考题整得更难一点。”数据显示,Malcolm Gladwell的说法是错的。以下是我们所写论文的关键图表,我的注解标红:

png;base64db8e9525745b448I take three lessons from this story.


1.Beware simple stories.

“The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.” Richard Lewontin attributes this quote to Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener.

“比喻的好处须以永恒的警惕换取。”Richard Lewontin将这一名言归于Arturo Rosenblueth 和 Norbert Wiener所说。

The story told by Professor Kahneman and by Malcolm Gladwell is very good. In most cases, however, reality is messier than the summary story.

Kahneman教授和Malcolm Gladwell讲的故事非常动听。但在多数情况中,现实都比简洁的故事要凌乱。

2.Ideas have considerable “Meme-mentum”

And yet it moves,” This quote is attributed to Galileo when forced to retract his statement that the earth moves around the sun.


The message is that It takes a long time to change conventional wisdom. The earth stayed at the center of the universe for many people for decades and even centuries after Copernicus.


png;base6419c7919457087521I expect that the false story as presented by Professor Kahneman and Malcolm Gladwell will persist for decades. Millions of people have read these false accounts. The message is simple, powerful, and important. Thus, even though the message is wrong, I expect it will have considerable momentum (or meme-mentum to paraphrase Richard Dawkins).

我预料,由Kahneman教授和Malcolm Gladwell所说的错误故事会继续存在几十年。数百万人读过这些错误说法。这个讯息简单、有力且重要无比。因此,尽管它是错的,我预测它会具有相当大的惯性动量(或借用Richard Dawkins的话说,模因惯性)。

One of my favorite examples of meme-mentum concerns stomach ulcers. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren faced skepticism to their view that many stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria (Helicobacter pylori). Professor Marshall describes the scientific response to his idea as ridicule; in response he gave himself an ulcer drinking the bacteria. Marshall gives a personal account of his self-infection in his Nobel Prize acceptance video (the self-infection portion starts at around 25:00).

我最喜欢援引的模因惯性例证之一跟胃溃疡有关。Barry Marshall和Robin Warren认为许多胃溃疡源于细菌(幽门螺杆菌),这一观点遭到质疑。Marshall教授称,科学界的反应是认为他的观点十分可笑;作为回应,他服用细菌并让自己患上了溃疡。在其接受诺贝尔奖的视频中,Marshall自己描述了这一自我感染经历。png;base64272736908a379b1

3.We can measure the rate of learning.

We can measure the rate of learning. Google scholar counts the number of times a paper is cited by other papers. I believe that well-informed scholars who cite the original paper ought to cite the subsequent papers. We can watch in real-time to see if that is true.


Paper 论文

Comment 备注

citations as of April 20, 2015 2015.4.20之前引用数

citations as of today 迄今为止引用数

Alter et al. (2007). “Overcoming intuition: metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136(4): 569. Alter等人(2007)。“克服直觉:元认知困难能激活分析推理”,《实验心理学杂志:总论》 136(4):569

Original paper showing hard-to-read leads to higher scores 最早提出难读导致高分的论文


click for current count 点击链接查看当前数字

Thompson et al. (2013). “The role of answer fluency and perceptual fluency as metacognitive cues for initiating analytic thinking.” Cognition 128(2): 237-251. Thompson等人(2013)。“回答流利性和感知流利性作为推动分析推理的元认知触发物”,《认知》 128(2):2237-251

Paper contradicts Alter at. al by reporting no hard-to-read effect. 与Alter等人相左,报告不存在“难读高分”效应的论文

38 click for current count 点击链接查看当前数字

Meyer et al. (2015). “Disfluent fonts don’t help people solve math problems.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144(2): e16. Meyer等人(2015)。“繁难字体对于人们解决数学问题并无助益”,《实验心理学杂志:总论》 144(2): e16

Our paper summarizing the original study and 16 others. 我们概述原初研究和后续16项研究的论文

0 (this “should” increase at least as fast as citations for Alter et. al, 2007) 0(引用数的增长速度“本应”至少与Alter等人2007年论文相同)

click for current count 点击链接查看当前数字



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