To predict the future, just trust in your feelings

Well, that and know a lot about the subject of your predictions. That's the idea behind new research coming out of Columbia, which claims people who trust their feelings are more likely to make accurate predictions than those who don't.

The researchers are calling this the "emotional oracle effect", which seems like it was pretty much engineered to make this whole idea sound more ridiculous than it actually is. The work compiles eight different studies from the last few years in which participants were asked to make predictions on topics 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." The researchers found that people who had more trust in their feelings consistently did better than their counterparts in making correct predictions.

For instance, 72% of those who trusted their feelings predicted Barack Obama would beat out Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination, while 64% of those who were more skeptical of their feelings made the same prediction - both arguably a more successful than average clip, considering the race was a virtual dead heat when the participants were asked to make the prediction. Still, the first group did significantly better, and the high-trust participants were also 17% more accurate in guessing American Idol winners and 25% better with the Dow Jones Index.

So where is this predictive talent? As silly as the term "emotional oracle" might be - and I'm pretty sure it's very, very silly - what it really means is that a gut feeling serves as an intuitive summary of all our accumulated knowledge on a topic, and that summary is apparently better than what we could come up with if we tried to consciously synthesize this information. Professor Michel Tuan Pham explains:

"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."

What makes me think this might not be complete nonsense is that the researchers aren't overplaying the power of this effect. It only works if people actually know something about the topic at hand, which is why high-trust people will do a good job predicting the weather in their own area but prove no better than their low-trust peers in predicting the weather in London or Tokyo (although "rain" seems like a pretty safe prediction for the first one). Similarly, only those who knew anything about sports had any success predicting the winner of the BCS Championship, regardless of how they trusted their feelings.

So then, it's not that our feelings magically give us the ability to intuit the future. That would be as ridiculous as calling something the "emotional oracle effect." But our feelings might well have a rather interesting role in focusing our overall knowledge into making a single prediction. Score one for the gut over the brain, it seems.

Original paper via the Journal of Consumer Research. Image by nikkytok, via Shutterstock.