Mind & Body

It's Easier to Predict Other People's Behavior Than Your Own

Some people are just so predictable. There's the guy at the office who comes in with the exact same latté every morning. The friend from college who always comments when you post a selfie. Your parents' inevitable puns. But not you — you're a maverick, and not even you know what you'll do next. How could anyone else? Well, because it's a lot easier to predict other people's behavior than your own.

Unpredictable You

Writing for the British Psychological Society, researcher David Dunning discussed several studies he had conducted since 2000 on how well people can predict their own behavior. It seems like it should be easy to do — if I think I might get up to make a sandwich, it's very easy to make that thought a reality. But as it turns out, people in Dunning's studies were about as accurate at predicting their own future behavior as they were at guessing the behavior of total strangers. There were a couple of factors at play.

The first is what Dunning calls the "holier-than-thou effect." As you might guess, people (but not you, surely) are likely to predict that they will engage in more good or charitable behaviors than that their peers will. In a study carried out with Emily Balcetis, Dunning asked participants to guess how likely they would be to purchase a daffodil for a fundraising drive by the American Cancer Society. A full 83 percent of participants responded that they would be likely to make that contribution, but on average they only predicted 56 percent of their peers would. When the actual fundraiser went down, the researchers found that only 43 percent of them had actually followed through.

Then, there's the matter of accuracy. So maybe people will tend to overestimate their own generosity — that's hardly a surprise, right? But surely the people who predicted that they would donate would at least be more likely to donate, right? Actually ... no. A person's predictions about themselves didn't have much effect on their actual behavior. In fact, when participants were given just five pieces of information about a total stranger, they were able to predict that person's behavior with the exact degree of accuracy that they could predict their own. That just doesn't make any sense at all. Whatever happened to "know thyself?"

Exceptional Beliefs

If the name David Dunning seems familiar to you, it might be because you've heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which he also helped come up with. And when you think about it, it's pretty closely tied up in this whole topic. The Dunning-Kruger effect really just points out that if you're not very good at something, you're also probably not very good at assessing how good you are at it. By the same token, if you're not very altruistic, you might have a skewed perspective of how altruistic you are.

So what if you're in a situation where you really need to make an accurate prediction about your future behavior? Dunning has a solution for that, but it's not especially intuitive. Instead of trying to guess on your own behalf whether you will have the willpower to hold off on going out for lunch this week, try these two Dunning-approved methods. First, imagine it's not you. How well would other people hang on to their avowed diet? That might be a more accurate guess than the one you make about yourself. The second trick that might be even more accurate, as long as you've got a willing friend — ask them what they think you'll do instead. After all, even though you can guess your own behavior about as well as a stranger can, there's strong evidence that the people you have close relationships with, like your parents or roommates, can predict your responses best of all.

Recognizing how your brain makes mistakes is the best way to avoid making them. "You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself" by David McRaney can help you learn all about those mistakes. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas June 4, 2018

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