When in Doubt, Seek Opinion of Others

Other People's Experiences Help You Predict Your Own Happiness, Study Says

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 19, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

March 19, 2009 -- The next time you’re having trouble deciding whether this or that will make you happy, don’t fret too long - just go ask a stranger.

His or her experience may be more informative than your own best guess, says a new Harvard University study.

“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,” Daniel Gilbert, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard, says in a news release.

The study, which appears in the journal Science, notes that previous research has shown that people often have trouble predicting what they’ll like and how much they’ll like it.

Gilbert and a team of researchers set out to eliminate that kind of fickleness from the calculus of the question by asking people to predict how much they’d enjoy a future event that they knew nothing about -- except how much a total stranger had enjoyed it.

Those people, it turns out, made extremely accurate predictions, say the researchers, who included Matthew Killingsworth and Rebecca Eyre, also of Harvard, and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Do Strangers Know Best?

Undergraduate women in one experiment predicted how much they would enjoy a “speed date” with a male student.

Some women read the man’s personal profile and saw his photograph; others knew nothing about the guy. But those who didn’t see a picture or read a guy’s profile did find out how much another woman they’d never met had enjoyed meeting him on a speed date. Women who learned about another woman’s experience did a much better job of predicting their own enjoyment of the speed date than women who reviewed the man’s written personality profile and picture.

Both groups of women mistakenly expected the profile and photo to lead to greater accuracy. They also said they’d strongly prefer to have the profile and photograph of their next date.

In another part of the study, two groups of participants were asked to predict how they would feel if they received negative personality feedback from a peer.

Some were given negative personality feedback presumably from a peer, and others received a stranger's report of how it felt to have personally received a negative report. Again, participants who were given information from a stranger describing their own feelings about receiving a negative report more accurately predicted their own reactions to negative feedback, the researchers say.

Gateway to Happiness: Learning From Others' Experience

“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 says.

But the truth is, “an alien who knew all the likes and dislikes of a single human being would know a great deal about the species,” he says in the article.

Gilbert says 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.”

Show Sources


News release, Harvard University.

Gilbert, D. Science, 2009; vol 323: pp 1617-1619.

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