Sunday, March 22, 2009

Other People Know More About What Will Make Us Happy Than We Do

Previous research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics has shown that people have difficulty predicting what they will like and how much they will like it, which leads them to make a wide variety of poor decisions. Interventions aimed at improving the accuracy with which people imagine future events have been generally unsuccessful.

So rather than trying to improve human imagination, Gilbert and his colleagues sought to eliminate it from the equation by asking people to predict how much they would enjoy a future event about which they knew absolutely nothing -- except how much a total stranger had enjoyed it. Amazingly enough, those people made extremely accurate predictions.

In one experiment, women predicted how much they would enjoy a "speed date" with a man. Some women read the man's personal profile and saw his photograph, and other women learned nothing whatsoever about the man, but did learn how much another woman (whom they had never met) had enjoyed dating him. Women who learned about a previous woman's experience did a much better job of predicting their own enjoyment of the speed date than did woman who studied the man's profile and photograph.

Interestingly, both groups of women mistakenly expected the profile and photo to lead to greater accuracy, and after the experiment was over both groups said they would strongly prefer to have the profile and photograph of their next date.

In the second experiment, two groups of participants were asked to predict how they would feel if they received negative personality feedback from a peer. Some participants were shown a complete written copy of the feedback. Other were shown nothing, and learned only how a total stranger had felt upon receiving the feedback. The latter group more accurately predicted their own reactions to the negative feedback. Once again, participants mistakenly guessed that a written copy of the feedback would be more informative than knowledge of a total stranger's experience.
via ScienceDaily


Joseph Dart said...

I think they've got the chain of causation all muddled up. I expect that knowledge of how someone else reacted to the event is changing how the subject herself reacts to the event, not "improving" her ability to predict reactions.

A real experiment would be to see whether a subject A can predict another subject B's enjoyment of a date with (a confederate?) C based on either 1) profiles of B and C, or 2) knowledge of whether or not D enjoyed a date with C; B should not see either piece of information. I expect the profiles would do better in that case, or at worst, both would do no better than chance.

Fat Knowledge said...

Interesting point. I guess another way you could test for this would be for having the total strangers randomly either say things will be good or bad, and then see if that impacts how the person enjoys the event.

I agree with what you are saying in your experiment, except that I thought the point of this was to see how well people could predict their own happiness.

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