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Oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast? Take the train or bike to work? Marry the guy or dump him? What we really need is a glimpse into the future that lets us know how each of these decisions ultimately turns out.
Enter Sentio Search. The website, which launched in beta January 2013, aims to help people make better decisions based on the consequences of other people’s choices in your social graph.
What’s the Deal?
Sentio Search was built to “reduce regret” by collecting data from the 60 million people who use the Internet to make big decisions. It’s called “surrogation,” and while the psychology is kind of complex, the site (founded by Tyson Brazell, a former data analyst) is actually pretty simple: Visitors create usernames, enter their age and gender, and then input a bunch of data about their personality. For example, do you agree, disagree, or neither agree nor disagree with the statement, “My life is close to ideal?” And which do you prefer: power or security?
Next, users create a “sentio,” essentially a question that represents a decision they need help making. (As of now, the question has to start with the words “Should I.”) So the question can literally be anything from “Should I get married?” to “Should I wear underwear today?” As soon as users select a category for their sentio (e.g. financial, romantic, or family) and a deadline when the decision has to be made, the site starts collecting data from other users. Under tabs labeled “sentio stream” and “surrogate sentios,” users can see feedback from similar-minded people who have faced comparable decisions.
In order for the process to work, users have to come back to the site after they’ve made their decision and report whether they’re happy with their choice. The site then uses this data to help determine what new, indecisive users should do. For example, if one user’s sentio is “Should I go to grad school?,” the site looks at other users who answered personality questions similarly and figures out whether they were satisfied with their decision to attend grad school.
Is It Legit?
Could be. “Surrogation” is based largely on the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In several books and studies (most famously, “Stumbling on Happiness”), Gilbert and other psychologists argue that humans tend to be poor judges of what’s going to make them happy in the future The surprising power of neighborly advice. Gilbert, D.T., Killingsworth, M.A., Eyre, R.N., et al. Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Science 2009 Mar 20;323(5921):1617-9. . We tend to look inward, basing our predictions on how we feel right now and what we know about the upcoming event. And we rarely take into account how other people have already reacted to the same situation (especially if we don’t know those other people) My imagination versus your feelings: can personal affective forecasts be improved by knowing other people's emotions? Walsh, E., Ayton, P. epartment of Psychology, City University, London, United Kingdom. Journal of Experimental Psychology 2009 Dec;15(4):351-60. "How long will I suffer?" versus "How long will you suffer?" A self-other effect in affective forecasting. Igou, E.R. Social Psychology Program, Tilburg University, LE Tilburg, The Netherlands. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2008 Oct;95(4):899-917. .
But research suggests other people’s experiences are actually the most accurate predictor of our own future. For example, if a friend (or even a new neighbor) bought an iPad Mini and hated it, chances are high that we’re going to hate it, too.
Still, even if the psychology makes sense, the site has a ways to go before it starts making daily decisions any easier. Right now the site has about a thousand users, though presumably it needs a whole lot more data before it can really help people stop regretting the choices they’ve made. And it’s hard to say whether the same algorithm that helps people figure out what to eat for lunch can account for the myriad personal factors that go into a decision like whether to have kids.
What kinds of decisions give you the most trouble? Would you use Sentio Search to help? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.