You have to make a decision. Suppose you are trying to decide on whether London or Dublin is a better place to visit with small children. You read the travel guides and try to imagine what it will be like in each city. You envision what your daily experiences will be like. Will you make a decision that your family finds acceptable and enjoyable? Alternatively, you could ask others who have traveled to London and Dublin. What were their experiences like? Which did they prefer for their small children? You might hesitate to use the latter strategy of consulting others. After all, your family is rather unique. What if those other families are very different from yours?
It turns out that consulting others makes much more sense than trying to envision the future, at least in most cases. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has studied this type of decision. Gilbert describes the strategy of consulting others as "surrogation" - i.e. you are using others' experiences as a surrogate for your own. Harvard Magazine described one experiment that Gilbert and his colleagues conducted and summarized their findings:
In one experiment to test surrogation, the psychologists asked a sample of women to predict how much they would enjoy a “speed date” with a particular man. Some women saw his personal profile and photograph; others learned nothing about him other than how much another woman (a stranger) had enjoyed her speed date with him. The second group predicted their enjoyment far more accurately than the first. Both groups had expected the reverse, and oddly enough, despite the outcome, both groups preferred to have the profile/photograph for their next date.
This suggests that ideas trump reality. But in predicting your likings, even someone else’s direct experience trumps mental hypotheses—which is why surrogation works. But to be helpful, the surrogate’s experience must be recent. “People are very poor at remembering how happy they were,” Gilbert says. “So it’s not very useful to ask, ‘How much did you like something you experienced last year?’ People get most questions about happiness wrong. But there is one question they get right: how happy are you right now?”