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So maybe your faith can’t move mountains but you can predict who wins American Idol

Wednesday, March 14, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

You just have to believe. In your emotions, that is. Too often we blame our emotions for our negative behavior–like overeating, or other misbehavior. As Jonah Lehrer aptly observes, “People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality.”

Researchers at the Columbia Business School asked research participants (aka undergraduate students) to tell them if they trusted their emotions more or if they trusted their logical/rational side more. But these researchers didn’t just ask about it. They did a “manipulation of participants’ trust in their feelings”.

They actually came up with a procedure called the “trust-in-feelings manipulation”.  In essence, when you want to assign a participant to the “high trust in feelings” condition, you simply ask them to describe TWO situations where they trusted in their feelings. And when you want to assign someone to the “low trust in feelings” condition, you ask them to describe TEN situations where they trusted their feelings. It’s a lot easier to identify two situations than it is to identify ten. [And apparently pretty easy to skew our sense of confidence in ourselves as well.]

As it turns out, if you were assigned to the “high trust in feelings” condition, you were much more likely to accurately predict the 2008 Democratic Presidential nominee; predict box office success in movie releases; predict the winner of American Idol; predict the ups and downs of the stock market; predict the winner of a football championship; predict the weather; and predict the weather in 2 days as well as in 2 weeks.

In a word? Spooky. When the research participants knew something about the area (like a knowledge of politics, the performers on American Idol, or were familiar with football rules), their accuracy improved. The researchers have typically academic language to explain this phenomenon. Instead, let’s return to Jonah Lehrer at

“The larger lesson, then, is that our emotions are neither stupid nor omniscient. They are imperfect oracles. Nevertheless, a strong emotion is a reminder that, even when we think we know nothing, our brain knows something. That’s what the feeling is trying to tell us.”

It’s like the fMRI study we wrote earlier this week. Even when we don’t know we know, we do know. So when you are in the midst of trial, trust your gut. Think of it as intuition, “a knowingness”, or whatever you want to call it. You use your rational self in preparing for trial and gathering information and planning a strategy. You involve your emotional self as you assess most effective ways of proceeding. And in trial, if you feel funny about how jurors are responding–there is probably a reason for that. Trust it.

Michel Tuan Pham, Leonard Lee, & Andrew T. Stephen (2012). Feeling the Future: The Emotional Oracle Effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 39

You can see the full text of the article here.


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