Positive Test Strategy – positively deluded


How questions are posed to us has a major influence on which conclusions we come to? We generally take the hypothesis in question and search for evidence that it is correct. If we are asked if we are happy, we dutifully search for evidence that we are happy. If we are asked if we are unhappy, we just as dutifully search for evidence that we are unhappy. This is called the positive test strategy (PTA).

In a classic experiment, particpant were asked to evaluate to parents to decide on custody of their child. Parent A was moderately well-equipped to have custody in all respects: income, health, working hours, rapport with child, and parental profile. Parent B had a more sporadic profile – above average income and a close relationship with the child, BUT an extremely active social life, a good deal of work-related travel, and minor health problems. The initial question posed to the experiment participants was “who should have custody of the child?” They followed the positive test strategy of searching for evidence that each parentwould be a good custodian. As a result, parent B’s impressive credentials with regard to income and relationship with the child won out over parent A’s more modest abilities on these fronts, and nearly twothirds of participants voted for parent B as the best custodian.

Ask who should be DENIED custody, however, and the positive test strategy yielded evidence of parent B’s inadequacies as a guardian: th ebusy social and work life, and the health problems. By comparison, a PTA search of parent A’s more pedestrian profile offered no strong reasons for rejection as a guardian. the result, the majority of particpants decided to deny parent B custody.

You may be relieved to be assured that the positive strategy only has an effect if there is genuine uncertainty in your mind about the issue you’re considering.” (FINE)

So many things cut both ways, especially words. And they’ll make you bleed  if you don’t pay attention to all the angles.

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