Predicting Our Future Reactions

Written by, among others, Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness), an article in Science looks at how bad we are at judging our reactions to various future events (closed access article).

In two experiments, participants more accurately predicted their affective reactions to a future event when they knew how a neighbor in their social network had reacted to it than when they knew about the event itself. Women made more accurate predictions about how much they would enjoy a date with a man when they knew how much another woman in their social network enjoyed dating the man than when they read the man’s personal profile and saw his photograph. Men and women made more accurate predictions about how they would feel after being evaluated by a peer when they knew how another person in their social network had felt after being evaluated than when they previewed the evaluation itself. Although surrogation trumped simulation, both participants and independent judges had precisely the opposite intuition. By a wide margin, they believed that simulation was more likely than surrogation to produce accurate affective forecasts.

Robin Hanson gives his typically learned opinion on the paper:

People often wonder what it will be like for them to be old, or married, or with a successful career, etc.  They usually conclude they just can’t know, and must wait and see.  Yet all around them are other folks who are old, married, etc. – why not just accept those experiences as a good predictions of such futures?

This research shows that we should do exactly that, as we’re not as different as we would like to think.