Why Saying 'The First Thing That Comes To Mind' Doesn't Produce Honest Answers

mbg Contributor By Sarah Fielding
mbg Contributor
Sarah Fielding is a freelance writer based in New York City covering a range of topics with a focus on mental health, sex, and relationships.
Why 'The First Thing That Comes To Mind' Probably Isn't Your Honest Answer

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

There's a memorable scene in Friends in which Joey and Chandler are leaving New York on a road trip west where Joey will be shooting a movie. Joey had just learned a new technique from Phoebe for figuring out how you really feel about something: answer a series of quick-fire questions with the first thing that pops into your head, which supposedly helps bring your true thoughts forward without any overthinking. When he tries the game on Chandler, though, it leads to a fight over Chandler's brutal honesty about his acting career—to the point where Joey eventually abandons Chandler on the bridge and drives off on his own. 

The scene, while humorous, reinforces the idea that answering a question quickly will allow you to tell the truth. It's an idea that has been told time and time again: The first thing that comes to mind supposedly says a lot about your inner self. Without the time to overthink, you'll tell people what you really mean. But according to new research, it turns out the first thing that comes to mind might not be true after all. 

In a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers conducted two experiments to determine whether quick answers really lead to honest answers. First, 1,500 Americans were given two series of questions that could be answered either slow or fast, though the second round of questioning incentivized faster answering. Researchers found that those who answered quickly tended to provide a more "socially desirable" answer than those who answered slowly. In other words, when under a time constraint, people were less likely to be honest and more likely to just say what they assumed others wanted to hear.

"The idea has always been that we have a divided mind—an intuitive, animalistic type and a more rational type," John Protzko, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-lead of the study, explained in a news release. "And the more rational type is assumed to always be constraining the lower order mind. If you ask people to answer quickly and without thinking, it's supposed to give you sort of a secret access to that lower order mind."

The reality, he said, is that the "answer quickly and without thinking" method actually makes people "lie to you and tell you what they think you want to hear."

Turns out we're all people-pleasers under pressure! When put under a time constraint, people are more likely to make themselves appear more virtuous than they are.

So the next time you're looking for a friend to tell you how they really feel, give them some time to think about it. You may be surprised at how much their answer changes when not immediately providing a people-pleasing response.

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