Want to predict the result of a sporting event? Don’t even think about it:
“…people with expertise in football are better at predicting match outcomes when they spend time not consciously thinking about their predictions.”
Imagine you’ve just paid an expert good money for their verdict and they say to you: “Can you hang on a couple of minutes whilst I don’t think about this”. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve gone silly. They may have. But another possibility is that you’ve chosen a shrewd expert who’s totally up-to-speed with the latest decision-making research: Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues have just shown that people with expertise in football are better at predicting match outcomes when they spend time not consciously thinking about their predictions.
This may seem bizarre but it’s entirely consistent with Dijksterhuis’s Unconscious Thought Theory and with the folk wisdom that says it’s a good idea to sleep on a problem. According to Dijksterhuis’s theory, the subconscious is sometimes less prone to the biases that afflict the conscious mind, thus ensuring that an expert gives due weight to the most important factors.
This was borne out in a second experiment, much like the first, in which students predicted the outcomes of World Cup football matches. Again, distracted experts made the most accurate predictions. This time, however, the researchers also asked participants to estimate the teams’ world rankings – apparently this is the most reliable predictor for the outcomes of World Cup matches. For experts who spent time consciously considering their match predictions, there was no correlation between their knowledge of team rankings and their prediction accuracy. By contrast, for the experts who spent time not thinking about their predictions, there was a correlation between their ranking knowledge and predictive accuracy. Not consciously thinking about the problem at hand seemed to ensure that experts paid due attention to the most important factor affecting match outcomes.
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