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Gut feelings

The dating website, OKCupid.com, said, that if you want a first date to end in sex, the best question to ask is; “Do you like beer?” If you are looking for long-term romance, the question should be; “Do you like horror movies?” Whatever theories we might put forward for this, the website forces users to answer hundreds of seemingly innocuous questions, and when you are looking at Big Data, the theories don’t really matter; it is enough that the correlations are there, whether they seem to make sense or not.

When it comes to judging character, we like to believe that gut instinct beats box-ticking. Jason Dana, from Yale University, says: “We have a deep-seated need to feel we can judge character.” But studies suggest that we can’t and a new paper, co-authored by Dana, is particularly revealing.

He looked at ‘unstructured interviews’, the type of free-wheeling interview that is usual in getting a job. Participants were asked to predict the academic performance of two students; in one case they were given data on past achievements (age etc.), in the other they got the data and the chance to interview the student. Consistent interviewing led to less accurate predictions.

The students who looked best on paper really were. You might have other reasons for wanting to see how someone handles themselves in conversation, but for forecasting performance, gut feel got in the way.

The problem with unstructured interviews (or dates) isn’t that they’re insufficiently informative, it’s that they’re too informative. Bombarded by data, we seek refuge in “sensemaking”, clinging to stories that seem to render things clear. But those stories might include inherent stereotypes about who’s good at what.

Or they might be the seductive stories of candidates skilled at interviews, yet rubbish at the job. “Because of sensemaking,” the researchers write, “interviewers are likely to feel they are getting useful information from unstructured interviews, even when they are useless.” Settling on a coherent story feels good, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

This gap, between what our guts say and what the data says, will grow wider. As Big Data quantifies more of our lives, we’ll increasingly face dilemmas: if your instincts tell you to date or hire Person A, but the metrics point to Person B, who to choose? The economist Tyler Cowen says the future belongs to people willing to listen to computers: “Those who won’t listen, or who rebel, will be missing out on glittering prizes.” Whether this strikes you as liberating or chilling may say much about your personality. Then again, perhaps not as much as whether you fancy a beer.

Nigel Phillips



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