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Are you Nostradamus?

This article originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 4 May 2013.

How good are you at predicting the future? It’s something we all do, whether it’s deciding if we should take an umbrella with us on a cloudy day, or discussing the likely results of a cooking reality TV show. Some people even make a living out of predicting the future, ranging from the TV weatherman (or woman) each night, to the shady clairvoyant who pretends to read your palm for twenty dollars. Clairvoyants aside, some people are better at predicting the future than others.

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research investigated the ability of people to predict the future. It asked a range of people to predict the outcome of a number of actual events. These included picking the winner of the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, the winner of American Idol, as well as what the weather would be like in two days’ time. Importantly however, the people asked to make the predictions were split into two groups. The first group were those people who felt they had a high degree of trust in their feelings; people who were confident that their gut feeling usually turned out to be right. The second group of people however, were those who felt that their gut feeling was often incorrect; they didn’t have a great deal of trust in their feelings and were more disposed to using logic and reasoning in making decisions. Who do you think performed better in correctly predicting the outcome of each event? Somewhat surprisingly, the people who relied on ‘feeling’ were more accurate in predicting the outcome of every event than those people who used logic and reasoning. This is somewhat counterintuitive as it is generally thought that logic and reasoning leads to better decision-making than relying on feeling or gut instinct.

There is one caveat though. There was no difference in the accuracy of people’s predictions if it was in regards to a topic with which they were unfamiliar. For example, people who relied on gut instinct were better at predicting the weather than people who used logic or reasoning, but if they were trying to predict the weather in say, Beijing, then there was no difference in accuracy. Both groups of people were as inaccurate as each other. The message is this: when faced with a decision or prediction, go with your gut feeling, unless it’s a decision in an area where you have little knowledge or experience. In such a situation, it’s best to seek the assistance of an expert.