For The Truth, Ask Friends

John Bargh at The Edge:

“If all these things are going on without my knowledge, then I don’t really know why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I don’t really know myself that well apparently. So how can I make the right decisions or make the right choices for myself when all these biases are throwing my decisions all over the place?”

There’s a really simple answer here, which I like and people also seem to like it. It is to ask your friends, ask your family, ask people who are close to you about yourself. Don’t be afraid to hear what they have to say. Tell them to tell you the truth, because they do know you, and in many ways better than you know yourself.

That’s the funny thing about all of this. It turns out we do know about other people pretty well. We’re much better at predicting other people’s behavior than our own, and Emily Pronin at Princeton, whose research has focused on this issue, gives a great example of when she was deciding on grad schools to go to.

She ended up going to Stanford, but she had (she believed) choices. And as she was deciding between all these great schools, and she was hemming and hawing and talking to her friends, and saying “Oh, where am I going to go to school? I only have a day more to decide.” And they all told her, “Give me a break. You’re going to Stanford.” “No, no, no. I’m not.” She would say “I don’t know that yet. I haven’t made my decision…. Really!”

So she ends up going to Stanford and her friends say “see, we were right.” But when she was in that situation of deciding with the cauldron of all those conflicting things going on, she couldn’t make up her mind. Her friends knew her from the outside, without all the noise going on inside. They didn’t have the biases about her that she had for herself and they didn’t have access to that internal cauldron. They could see her as she was and knew (better than she did, consciously anyway) what she was going to do.

There’s a lot of research on this (Tim Wilson at Virginia and David Dunning at Cornell have studied the phenomenon for years now); we’re much more accurate about predicting other people than we are at predicting ourselves. All these things going on inside of us get in the way, and especially the positive illusions about ourselves.

But really, if you ask other people around you, you well might get a better sense of yourself. That’s the truth that’s out there. It’s not like it’s unknown and you can never know yourself because of all your biases. The people around you know. It’s the simple answer and it seems to work.

I doubt this always works, but surely it works enough to help a lot.  This is a great reason to collect close friends, and to make it clear to them that your friendship depends little on if you agree with their advice.  At least it would be if you wanted to know the truth.  But do you want to know?  If a year from now you still haven’t asked your friends, you’ll have your answer.  Hat tip to Arnold Kling.

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  • George

    Another approach is to ask: WWTAPD? (“What would the average person do?”) Since we tend to see ourselves as more different from others than we actually are, one way to try to short circuit this bias is using “the average person” as our surrogate in the decision-making process. (see Stumbling on Happiness, hardcover p. 229+)

  • Hrishi Mittal

    Robin, this post and yesterday’s post seem contradictory to me.

    Will friends (or other people who know us well) tell us the truth or just tell us what shallow signals they would like us to signal? Such as going to Stanford.

  • bcg

    But nobody wants to look so needy for validation or so unsure of who they are that they ask their friends. It is a good way to scare off some otherwise good people.

  • Hrishi, in the story above what your friends know, and you may not know, is that you want the shallow signal just as much as they do.

    Yes, what we need it is a good standard list of questions to ask your friends, so that your in particular asking them signals less about you.

  • Jonathan


    How do you square this with Bryan’s doubts about the existence of fundamental attribution error? It seems that if you accept the premise laid out by John Bargh above, then you do not share Bryan’s sentiments. Do I understand that correctly?

  • James Andrix

    I second Hrishi Mittal, hearing many of your friends tell you what they think you will do will influence your behavior.

    We would need a study that polls a persons friends without the person knowing the results, or asking for any advice they normally would not.

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