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Your Predictions Are Bad And You Should Feel Bad

2012 April 19
by Eric Horowitz

In times of trouble people often ask something along the lines of “What would Jesus do?”, but research on perspective taking is steadily demonstrating that the better question to ponder might be “What would Bob from accounting do?” The latest piece of research comes from Ilan Yaniv and Shoam Chosen-Hillen of Hebrew University. The two psychologists found that people gave more accurate estimates when they were instructed to take the perspective of another person.

We tested the idea that decision makers taking the perspective of another person engage a less egocentric mode of processing of advisory opinions and thereby improve their accuracy. In Studies 1-2, participants gave their initial opinions and then considered a sample of advisory opinions in two conditions. In one condition (self- perspective), they were asked to give their best advice-based estimates. In the second (other- perspective), they were asked to give advice-based estimates from the perspective of another judge. The dependent variables were the participants’ accuracy and indices that traced their judgmental policy. In the self-perspective condition participants adhered to their initial opinions, whereas in the other-perspective condition they were far less egocentric, weighted the available opinions more equally and produced more accurate estimates. In Study 3, initial estimates were not elicited, yet the data patterns were consistent with these conclusions. All studies suggest that switching perspectives allows decision makers to generate advice-based judgments that are superior to those they would otherwise have produced.

All of human thought is nothing more than a series of predictions (e.g. “I will probably enjoy this burger”, “This left turn will probably get me where I’m going”, “It’s probably ok to steal to feed my family”) so getting better at predicting is no small feat.

The other nice thing about the study is that it illustrates what some might call the “subjectivity of reality.” Every single person sees a different world — one that has been uniquely shaped by their beliefs, experiences, and desires. Unfortunately, this unique shaping makes us bad at seeing the world as it “truly” exists or as many others see it. Both Julian Sanchez and Jesse Singal recently wrote about how this influences reactions to controversial events like the Trayvon Martin case, and these subjective interpretations influence nearly everything in life that we think about. This subjectivity is one reason why something like “The Secret” can be scientific hogwash and still have a positive effect. If you have no job, no friends, and no prospects, but you convince yourself you’re living the life you always wanted, then you are living the life you always wanted.

We tend the discount the opinions of others because they make less sense given how we see the world. However, they make a lot of sense given how others see the world, and the way others see the world isn’t inherently less “right” than the way we see it. The result is that by taking the perspective of others we can find a truth that’s slightly less subjective, and that outlook allows us to make better predictions.
Yaniv, I., & Choshen-Hillel, S. (2012). When guessing what another person would say is better than giving your own opinion: Using perspective-taking to improve advice-taking Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.016

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