Categorized | Psychology

The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice

Updated: Dec 7, 2009


“Our neighbor’s experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess.” (Gilbert, Killingsworth, Eyre, & Wilson, 2009, p. 1619) In other words, another person sharing their first hand experiences (surrogation), helps us to make better predictions than our own best guess (simulation) of how we will feel when experiencing the same event. At the same time,  all participants believed that simulation would be superior to surrogation, even after it had failed them.

We know this from the following two experiments by Gilbert, Killingsworth, Eyre, and Wilson (2009):

(1) Women who relied on surrogate information, to make affective forecasts about an anticipated speed date, had a 49% lower error rate than those who relied on simulation. Of the same women, 74% also predicted that simulation information would have yielded more accurate predictions about their date and 84% anticipated this to be true with future dates as well.

(2) In the second study, half the forecasters were given simulation information, description of three personality types, to evaluate how they would feel if another person classified them as a positive, neutral, or negative personality type. The other half of the forecasters received only surrogate information from an individual who was classified as a negative personality type. Those forecasters who relied on surrogate information, had on average a 63% lower forecasting error rate then those relying on simulation. In addition, third party judges had the opposite intuition, they erroneously thought simulation would be the more effective information for forecasters when in fact surrogate information was more effective.

Possible explanations for these findings are, (1) our affective reactions are to a large extent produced by the physiological mechanisms shared by all humans and (2) we surround over-selves with like minded people whose affective reactions we are likely to have in common.

Gilbert, D. T., Killingsworth, M. A., Eyre, R. N., & Wilson, T. D. (2009). The surprising power of neighborly advice. Science, 323, 1617-1619. [free full text PDF]


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.


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