Trusting your feelings leads to more accurate predictions of the future

A forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research by Professor Michel Tuan Pham and Leonard Lee of Columbia Business School, and Andrew Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh, finds that a higher trust in feelings may result in more accurate predictions about a variety of future events. The research will also be featured in Columbia Business School’s Ideas at Work in late February 2012. In the research, the researchers conducted a series of eight studies in which their participants were asked to predict various future outcomes, including the 2008 U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, the box-office success of different movies, the winner of American Idol, movements of the Dow Jones Index, the winner of a college football championship game, and even the weather. Despite the range of events and prediction horizons (in terms of when the future outcome would be determined), the results across all studies consistently revealed that people with higher trust in their feelings were more likely to correctly predict the final outcome than those with lower trust in their feelings. The researchers call this phenomenon the emotional oracle effect.

Across studies, the researchers used two different methods to manipulate or measure how much individuals relied on their feelings to make their predictions. In some studies, the researchers used an increasingly standard trust-in-feelings manipulation originally developed by Tamar Avnet, PhD ’04 and Professor Michel Pham based on earlier findings by Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and his colleagues. In other studies, the researchers simply measured how much participants typically relied on their feelings in general when making predictions. Regardless of the method used, participants who trusted their feelings in general or were induced to trust their feelings experimentally were more accurate in their predictions compared to participants with lower trust in their feelings and with participants in a control group.

In one study involving the Clinton-Obama contest in 2008, high-trust-in-feelings respondents predicted correctly for Obama about 72 percent of the time compared with low-trust respondents, who predicted for Obama about 64 percent of the time – a striking result given that major polls reflected a very tight race between Clinton and Obama at that time. For the winner of American Idol, the difference was 41 percent for high-trust-in-feelings respondents compared to 24 percent for low-trust respondents. In another study participants were even asked to predict future levels of the Dow Jones stock market index. Those who trusted their feelings were 25 percent more accurate than those who trusted their feelings less.

The researchers explain their findings through a “privileged window” hypothesis. Professor Michel Pham elaborates on the hypothesis. “When we rely on our feelings, what feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ summarizes all the knowledge and information that we have acquired consciously and unconsciously about the world around us. It is this cumulative knowledge, which our feelings summarize for us, that allows us make better predictions. In a sense, our feelings give us access to a privileged window of knowledge and information – a window that a more analytical form of reasoning blocks us from.”

In accordance with the privileged window hypothesis, the researchers caution that some amount of relevant knowledge appears to be required to more accurately forecast the future. For example, in one study participants were asked to predict the weather. While participants who trusted their feelings were again better able to predict the weather, they were only able to do so for the weather in their own zip codes, not for the weather in Beijing or Melbourne. Professor Leonard Lee explains this is because “…they don’t possess a knowledge base that would help them to make those predictions.” As another example, only participants who had some background knowledge about the current football season benefited from trust in feelings in predicting the winner of the national college football BCS game.

Thus, if we learn to trust our feelings and we have a proper knowledge base, the future need not be totally indecipherable.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Interesting. But I feel cautious about this. I know people who “trust feelings” but their feelings are rooted in very distorted thinking, so in that case, feelings are not trustworthy.

    • Nothing is 100% trustworthy, and our feelings can mislead us and need to be questioned. At the same time they can be the result of massive amounts of computation that are going on in areas of the brain inaccessible to consciousness, and they can potentially be very useful. To give a trivial example, I’ll sometimes get the feeling when I’m about to go somewhere that I’ve forgotten something. I’ve learned to trust that feeling, because it’s never been wrong. It seems some part of my brain knows I intended to take a certain item with me. Consciously I’ve no idea what the item is, so I just have to stand on the threshold, running through various scenarios of what I’m planning to do today, until I remember that I was going to return my friend’s book to him, or whatever.

  • Or, to give it a rather more honest title, “Study finds that people who are in a position to know what’s likely to happen tend to predict correctly more often, and these same people also have more confidence in their predictions.”

    • I think you’ve misunderstood the study, Bob. The researchers looked at the extent to which people trusted their feelings in general and how that correlated to their ability to make accurate predictions. People who trust their feelings in general (not just that they had confidence in the specific prediction they were making) made more accurate predictions. This seems to me to be a significant finding.

      As for your accusation of dishonesty, it’s quite painful to read. Isn’t it best to rule out the possibility of misunderstandings, etc before questioning someone’s integrity?

  • Perhaps someone could do a study to assess people’s trust in their feelings that they could enter a locked house, and compare it with whether or not they actually could enter a locked house. I imagine there’d be a strong correlation (perhaps because most people intuitively know whether or not they recognise the house and whether or not they have the keys in their pocket).

    This could be presented as “Trust in feelings leads to ability to enter locked house.”

  • I don’t think there’s a need to take offence, Bodhipaksa. I haven’t accused you of dishonesty.

    The authors of the study have found a correlation between the level of trust in feelings and the ability to predict the outcomes of things they’re familiar with. The jump to pronounce a causal relationship is all too easy to make, and unless the study really *has* shown it, is misleading.

    The causal relationship could operate in entirely the opposite direction: perhaps the people who have developed a more realistic appreciation of cause and effect would be better able to predict outcomes correctly; or perhaps people who are naturally more observant of the world around them and the way it tends to work are better able to predict outcomes correctly; a lifetime of experience of this would lead them to feel more confident in their intuitions generally.

    There are all sorts of ways of interpreting it. Perhaps the study has eliminated these different angles and really has shown what you’re saying it’s shown, in which case I’m missing the point, as you say.

    Perhaps it just doesn’t feel right :) My intuitive response to the suggestion that someone has shown that if I trust my feelings, I’ll be able to predict the future, is that it feels like someone along the line is saying what they’d like to think is the case instead of just saying what they’ve found. My considered response is along similar lines.

    • Hi, Bob.

      Actually you did imply that I was dishonest. I’ll let it slide, though.

      While your hypothesis is interesting it’s quite simple to test; just induce people to trust their feelings and see if their ability to make accurate predictions improves. If the experimenters’ theory of causation is correct, then you’d expect to see an increase in the accuracy of predictions. If only they had thought of that! Oh, wait, they did. What did they find? “Participants who trusted their feelings in general or were induced to trust their feelings experimentally were more accurate in their predictions compared to participants with lower trust in their in their feelings and participants in a control group.” So, yeah, increasing people’s confidence in their gut feelings leads to increased accuracy in prediction-making.

      The apparent failure of your own intuitive response is a valuable reminder that not all intuitions are accurate. You can have a hunch about something and the hunch is completely wrong. But hunches are simply one way our mind has of presenting its interpretations of events to us. Down in the brain’s basement, out of view of the conscious mind, variables are being weighed up, and when the calculative process reckons that Obama is more likely to win than Hilary, for example, it presents us with a hunch. Now obviously those hunches are not 100% reliable, but when we ignore those hunches our decision-making is (evidently) less accurate. And that’s pretty much what you’d expect, given that if we do ignore hunches we’re ignoring much of the analysis that the brain is doing.

      One thing I’ve found is that strong emotional responses actually overwhelm our ability to notice hunches as well as our ability to think clearly. This may seem counter-intuitive because a lot of people confuse having strong emotional responses with trusting intuitions. When we’re reactive, for example, the strength of our emotion makes it harder to observe those hunches, which are often fairly subtle. This is one reason why propaganda tries to get us emotionally worked up — so that we won’t either think about what’s being said or have that “there’s something fishy about this but I can’t quite put my finger on it” feeling. I assume you’re familiar with that feeling. It’s one of the most valuable tools we have.


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