Monday, April 06, 2009

The surprising power of neighborly advice.

I did a series of posts in June, 2006 abstracting Dan Gilberts book "Stumbling on Happiness." (You can use the blog search box to find them by entering the word "stumbling.") His main suggestion for knowing how you might actually feel emotionally about a desired future situation was simply to ask someone who has been there (become a successful doctor, actor, writer, etc.) Following in this vein, his group has recently obtained a very simple result concerning how people predict their future emotional reactions. Their abstract, following by some text:
Two experiments revealed that (i) people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself and (ii) people do not believe this. Undergraduates made more accurate predictions about their affective reactions to a 5-minute speed date (n = 25) and to a peer evaluation (n = 88) when they knew only how another undergraduate had reacted to these events than when they had information about the events themselves. Both participants and independent judges mistakenly believed that predictions based on information about the event would be more accurate than predictions based on information about how another person had reacted to it.
Some context from the text of the article:
People make systematic errors when attempting to predict their affective reactions to future overestimate how unhappy they will be after receiving bad test results, becoming disabled, or being denied a promotion, and to overestimate how happy they will be after winning a prize, initiating a romantic relationship, or taking revenge against those who have harmed them. Research suggests that the main reason people mispredict their affective reactions to future events is that they imagine those events inaccurately.

The 17th century writer Fran├žois de La Rochefoucauld suggested that rather than mentally simulating a future event, people should consult those who have experienced it. "Before we set our hearts too much upon anything," he wrote, "let us first examine how happy those are who already possess it" . La Rochefoucauld was essentially suggesting that forecasters should use other people as surrogates for themselves, and the advantages of his "surrogation strategy" are clear: Because surrogation does not rely on mental simulation, it is immune to the many errors that inaccurate simulations produce.

The disadvantages of surrogation are also clear: Individuals differ, and thus, one person's affective reaction is almost certainly an imperfect predictor of another's. But there are at least two reasons to suspect that affective reactions are not as different as people may believe. First, affective reactions are produced in large part by physiological mechanisms that are evolutionarily ancient, which is why people the world over have very different beliefs and opinions but very similar affective reactions to a wide range of stimuli, preferring warm to cold, satiety to hunger, friends to enemies, winning to losing, and so on.
Their summary and conclusions:
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.

Two points are worthy of note. First, surrogation is by definition superior to simulation when individual differences are relatively small and simulations errors are relatively large, and it is inferior to simulation when the opposite is true. Although there is no way to know which of these is more typical in everyday life, the situations we studied—dating and peer-evaluation—are by no means exotic.

Second, although our experiments demonstrate the power of surrogation, they also suggest that people may not normally take advantage of this power. Our participants mistakenly believed that simulation was the superior strategy even after it had failed them, which suggests that people may be reluctant to engage in surrogation if they have the opportunity to do seems likely that in everyday life, La Rochefoucauld's advice—like the advice of good neighbors—is more often than not ignored. When we want to know our emotional futures, it is difficult to believe that a neighbor's experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess.

1 comment:

  1. could this not instead be a sociological impact: we seek to assimilate our reactions and behaviors with others, as a general rule, so as not to come across as overly proud or cocky (when winning a prize) or self-pitying (when we don't get a promotion)? If our neighbors expressed their emotions more extremely, would we not follow suit? Have we not become a society of tepidness where we're expected to stay in the smooth creamy center lane of our straight and narrow highway, and assimilate or else be labeled a freak, liberal, hippie, socialist, etc... etc...?