If you want to know if you'll like a restaurant, vacation or anything else you have never had experience with, try asking someone else who has. According to new study from Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor and author of the bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness, a complete stranger's experiences can actually be more helpful and informative than your own guess.
Is a stranger's advice better than your own best guess?
Image © Griszka Niewiadomski
The study, published in the March 20 issue of Science, argues that people are often very inaccurate at imagining how much they will enjoy something. "If you want to know how much you will enjoy an experience, you are better off knowing how much someone else enjoyed it than knowing anything about the experience itself," says Gilbert. "Rather than closing our eyes and imagining the future, we should examine the experience of those who have been there."
In one of the experiments, 33 undergraduate women were asked to participate in a "speed date" with a male student. Some of the women were provided with "simulation information" about the man, such as a photograph and brief descriptive profile. Other women were given "surrogate information" in which they learned about another woman's previous experience during a speed date with the man. While both groups of women predicted that the photo and profile would lead the most accurate judgement of the date, the women who learned about the other woman's earlier experience actually did a much better job of predicting their own enjoyment of the date. Interestingly, both groups of women later said that they would prefer to have the photo and profile of their next date.
"People do not realize what a powerful source of information another person's experience can be because they mistakenly believe that everyone is remarkably different from everyone else," Gilbert explains. "But the fact is that an alien who knew all the likes and dislikes of a single human being would know a great deal about the species. People believe that the best way to predict how happy they will be in the future is to know what their future holds, but what they should really want to know is how happy those who've been to the future actually turned out to be."
You can listen to the Science interview with Gilbert here.
Gilbert, D.T., Killingsworth, M.A, Eyre, R.N. & Wilson, T.D. (2009) The surprising power of neighborly advice. Science, 323(5921), 1617-1619.