To predict the future, go with your gut

U. PITTSBURGH (US) — People who trust their feelings are more likely to correctly predict outcomes—from the mundane like the weather, to more significant events like the 2012 presidential election.

A study published in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who trusted their emotions more accurately predicted future events than individuals who did not place trust in their feelings, a phenomenon they call the “emotional oracle effect.”

“The results show that your feelings are a valid information source, provided you have some prior knowledge of the decision topic,” says Andrew Stephen, assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.


“The normal line of thought when making predictions or forecasts is that people should be more rational, that you probably shouldn’t go with your gut feeling. Our research indicates that in some cases relying on your feelings is likely to help you.”

Through a series of eight studies, researchers asked participants to predict the outcomes of events including the 2008 US Democratic Party presidential primary, movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the winner of a college football championship game, and the weather.

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.

In the study where respondents were asked to pick the winning candidate in the 2008 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, high–trust–in–feelings respondents correctly predicted Obama’s winning about 72 percent of the time compared with low–trust respondents, who predicted Obama’s winning about 64 percent of the time—a striking result given that major polls reflected an extremely tight race between the two candidates at the time the study was conducted.

For the winner of television’s American Idol competition, the difference was 41 percent for high–trust–in–feelings respondents compared to 24 percent for low–trust respondents. In another study, participants were asked to predict future levels of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Those who trusted their feelings were 25 percent more accurate than those with low trust in their feelings.

The researchers explain their findings through a “privileged window” hypothesis that is based on the idea that people’s feelings serve as meta-summaries of prior experience, where the brain encodes life experiences, and feelings catalog the information.

“We are encoding experiences every second of every day. Actually tapping into that is a challenge, because it’s mostly unconscious,” Stephen says. “Trusting your feelings is how you access that cataloged information.”

To use the privileged window hypothesis, some amount of relevant knowledge appears to be required to more accurately forecast the future, researchers say.

For example, in one study participants were asked to predict the weather. From the 175 online participants across 46 states, those participants who trusted their feelings were better able to predict local weather—but while they were able to predict the weather in their own zip code areas, they couldn’t in Beijing or Melbourne.

The emotional oracle effect isn’t an invitation for people to disregard reason-based judgment. Instead, it shows that intuition is a valuable complement. People who heed their feelings have a broader perspective than those who don’t. The reason? Because those feelings are based on prior experiences, not just the immediate facts in front of them.

“It’s a reminder that it’s not wrong to go with your gut,” Stephen says. “However, the effectiveness is not so much just that you have feelings—it’s whether you trust them or not. Your feelings give you a more general view and can be a relevant input.”

Researchers from Columbia University contributed to the study.

Source: University of Pittsburgh