We're useless at predicting how we'll feel in future situations. What we dread usually doesn't leave us feeling so bad after all, and events we relish often end up leaving us cold. Now Dan Gilbert and colleagues have shown that our predictive powers can be improved in a rather simple way: by learning how someone else in our social network found the same experience. The trouble is we seem to have a persistent mental block about this, believing that our own best guess will be more insightful than information on how another person found the experience.
In an initial experiment, female undergrads predicted their enjoyment of a five-minute speed date. Those students who were told how much another female student had enjoyed speed-dating the same man subsequently forecast their own enjoyment far more accurately than did students who made their forecast based on factual information about the man. Despite this, at the end of the experiment, the participants still believed that information about a future dating partner would be a more useful aid to predicting their dating enjoyment than information about another woman's experience.
In a second experiment, students predicted how they would feel after having their personality categorised on the basis of a story they'd written. Consistent with the first experiment, those students who were told how another student had felt after the same experience subsequently forecast their own reaction far more accurately than did students who were instead given detailed information about the personality categorisation system.
"When we want to know our emotional futures, it is difficult to believe that a neighbour's experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess," Gilbert and his colleagues said.
The Digest asked Prof Gilbert why we make this systematic error. "My best guess," he told us, "is that we overestimate our uniqueness and thus don't think that other people's experiences can tell us much about our own."
Link to podcast interview with study author.
Link to previous Digest post about Dan Gilbert.
Link to earlier Digest post: We're useless at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally.
Link to earlier Digest post: Overestimating the impact of future events.
D.T. Gilbert, M.A. Killingsworth, & R.N. Eyre (2009). The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice. Science, 323, 1617-1619 DOI: 10.1126/science.1166632