By Margarita Nahapetyan
When you find yourself in a position when it is hard to figure out what will make you happy - do not hesitate just to go and ask a complete stranger. The experience of that person is more likely to help you make up your mind and predict your future reactions, reports a new study by Harvard University.
"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," said Daniel Gilbert, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard.
The study, titled "The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice," was based on two experiments. The first experiment included 33 undergraduate women who were asked to take part, individually, in a 5-minute "speed date" with a male student. Before the date, the experts equipped one group of women with ""simulation information," which included the man's photograph and his personal profile with a name, age, height, favorite food, hobbies and college class. Another group of women was provided with "surrogation information," which implied enjoyment rating by another undergraduate woman of a speed date with the same man. Women in both groups were asked to predict how much they would enjoy their own speed date, and at the end of the actual date they had to fill out their own score on the 1-to-100 enjoyment scale.
The results showed that women in the second group, who were using surrogation info to learn about another woman's experience, turned out to be much better predictors of their own enjoyment of the speed date (by 49 per cent), compared to women who were given the opportunity to review the man's photo and his personality profile. The female students in both groups (84 per cent in combination), wrongly expected that the profile and a picture would help them create more accurate imaginary impression about their future date.
In the second experiment, the two groups of female students were asked to write a story, which would afterwards be reviewed by a peer who, in turn, would describe the author's personality by 3 criteria: A - as a positive, B - as neutral, and C - as negative. Students were also asked to predict what would be their reaction if their peer judged them to be a negative personality. Women in the 1st group were asked to report their predictions based on written descriptions of all three personality types, while the participants of the 2nd group were not given those descriptions, but shown only a reaction report by a stranger of how it felt to receive a negative report. And again, the results revealed that report from a stranger student describing their own feelings and impressions about receiving a negative report, turned out to be a more accurate predictor of students' future feelings and reactions than their own definitions of negative feedback, reducing the "size of the affective forecasting error by 63 per cent."
The study, which is published in the latest issue of the journal Science, points out that previous research has shown that individuals very often experience problems predicting their future feelings and reactions about most things, such as what they might like and to what extent they will enjoy it. According to Gilbert, people do not understand how useful another person's opinion can be because they wrongly believe that every human being is different from everyone else. However, in reality "an alien who knew all the likes and dislikes of a single human being would know a great deal about the species," the expert wrote in the article.
People tend to believe that the best way to figure out how happy they will be in the future is to know what the future holds for them, but what they really should know is how happy those people who have actually been to the future, turned out to be.
The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.