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What Will Make You Happy? Study Suggests You Should Ask Someone Else

By , black-rose-bielefeld.de GuideMarch 20, 2009

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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.

decision making
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.


March 21, 2009 at 8:49 am
(1) Ken Eisold says:

An interesting conjunction of comments: What is consciousness? and How the judgments of others about your preferences are often better than yours.

Neuro-psychology tells us how consciousness is flawed, a highly selective version of the information we receive and the thoughts we have. Any discussion of consciousness should include the unconscious as well: what we don?t know we know.

March 23, 2009 at 10:37 am
(2) Olga says:

The study was of 33 undergraduate university students? reactions to gossip. This is a confounding variable in the study of like-dislike, because it related the quality studied to a social quality ? communication. The focus of the psychology behind it is unclear, because the search for a good date is related more to sociology and evolution. What aspect of dating is psychological throughout life? ? maybe what the parents think of the date after meeting them?

July 15, 2009 at 2:16 pm
(3) Kevin says:

An interesting study, to be sure, from a highly respected researcher. I might wonder, however, whether the opinion of the ?neighbor? actually influences (biases) the subjects? perception of the date, in a way that would not have happened had they not received the opinion of the other.

For example, if a gal who had previously dated Mr. Z remarked to the subject, ?He was boring and not very attractive,? might that not taint the perspective of the subject?s own impression of Mr. Z, producing a pre-judgment and thereby better ?predicting? how the subject will feel about him?

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