Everyone wants to have good experiences, but we often make choices that have the opposite effect. We read a review of a movie and think we’ll enjoy it, only to leave the theatre resenting the small fortune we paid to get in. Information let us down. We’d have done better, according to Harvard happiness guru Daniel Gilbert, just to ask someone else how much they liked the film.

Scientists say it is very difficult to improve the accuracy with which people imagine future events. So Gilbert and colleagues decided to bypass imagination and asked people to predict how much they would enjoy a future event guided solely by how much a total stranger had enjoyed it. They made extremely accurate predictions.

Women who learned about a previous woman’s experience did a much better job of predicting their own enjoyment of a speed date than did women who studied the man’s profile and photograph. (Which did not stop either group strongly preferring to have the profile and photograph of their next date.) Similarly, people who heard only how a stranger reacted to some negative personality feedback from a peer more accurately predicted their own reactions to that situation than people who saw a complete written copy of the criticism before they heard it face to face.

“People do not realize what a powerful source of information another person’s experience can be,” says Gilbert, “because they mistakenly believe that everyone is remarkably different from everyone else. 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.” ~ Harvard University Gazette Online, Apr 2

 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet