Study: our emotions can help predict the future

at 03:15 PM ET, 03/02/2012


A fortune teller sets tarot cards for his customers at a coffee shop in central Tehran. (Morteza Nikoubazl - Reuters)
A forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that trusting one’s intuition improves predictions of future outcomes from politics and the stock market to American Idol and the weather:

Individuals who have higher trust in their feelings can predict the outcomes of future events better than individuals with lower trust in their feelings. This emotional oracle effect was found across a variety of prediction domains, including (a) the 2008 US Democratic presidential nomination, (b) movie box-office success, (c ) the winner of American Idol, (d) the stock market, (e) college football, and even (f) the weather. It is mostly high trust in feelings that improves prediction accuracy rather than low trust in feelings that impairs it.

That said, guessing based on emotion alone isn’t enough. The so-called “emotional oracle effect” happens only when people have “sufficient background knowledge about the prediction domain, and it dissipates when the prediction criterion becomes inherently unpredictable,” write the authors, three marketing professors from Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh.

That’s because people aren’t totally blind-guessing when they’re trusting their intuition: their unconscious mind, in particular, is drawing upon a broad range of information to reach a conclusion:

The authors hypothesize that the effect arises because trusting one’s feelings encourages access to a “privileged window” into the vast amount of predictive information that people learn, often unconsciously, about their environments.
This process should tend to outperform a more analytical form of reasoning in predictions because of the fact that feelings tap into all we know about our environment, whereas reason-based predictions may encourage a more selective reliance on inputs and rationales that may seem logical but have in fact limited predictive validity.

As such, the researchers find that having general, wide-ranging background knowledge can make predictions more accurate than having narrow, specialized knowledge about the factors and players involved.

Jonah Lehrer takes a closer, more criticallook at the same study. Our emotions “are imperfect oracles,” he concludes. “Nevertheless, a strong emotion is a reminder that, even when we think we know nothing, our brain knows something.”

 
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