How good at you at knowing ahead of time what choice someone else will make? It turns out for most of us the answer is: not that good.

That's just one result of a fascinating experiment conducted by Vox on behalf of Volvo. The experiment sought to find out why some people choose safety and others choose adventure, and subjects were given a very simple choice. They were placed in a room facing two doors. They were told that Door #2 was the exit, and if they went through that door, they would be leaving the building and the experiment. The only way to learn what was behind Door #1 was to walk through it. Before making their choices, subjects were asked to share their thoughts about the unknown.

Vox then released images and video of five of the in the moments before they made their decisions and invited site visitors to vote on who would choose which door. There's one clear conclusion to draw from this secondary experiment: Even hearing some of their thoughts right before they made their choice, most of us can't accurately predict what the experiment's subjects will do.

Here's a link so you can try it for yourself.

Warning: Although I will not reveal any specific choices in the rest of this article, it may give you some clues as to what experiment subjects chose. If you want to take the test with a completely fresh outlook, do it before reading on.

Here's some of what we've learned from the two-part experiment:

1. People are really bad at predicting who will do what.

Once you cast your own vote as to what each participant will do, you get to see the percentage breakdown of total votes. In some cases, the votes are 50/50, or close to it. But in cases where voters strongly favored one outcome or the other, they were wrong.

2. Demographics don't affect choices the way you might expect.

You might assume that younger people are inherently more adventurous than older ones, and more apt to choose Door #1. You might expect that wealthier people feel more secure and thus would be more willing to choose the unknown, or that minorities and LBGT people who are likelier to have had unpleasant experiences with strangers in our society would be likelier to choose safety. None of those expectations proved true in this experiment.Demographic differences did not appear to make people likelier to choose one door or the other.

3. People are basically optimistic.

About two thirds of experiment subjects chose Door #1. That makes sense, given the known human tendency toward optimism bias--the general expectation most of us have that things will go well. It might also reflect basic common sense, given the parameters of the experiment--for example, subjects likely knew that they would suffer no lasting harm by choosing the unknown door and that they were likelier to have a pleasant experience than an unpleasant one.

4. People choose the unknown for what it says about them.

People who talked about embracing the unknown and wound up picking Door #1 seemed to care more what that choice meant about who they were than what they would actually find behind it. One subject said she would choose the unknown because to stick with what she knew, it would limit her personal growth. Another chose the unknown as an expression of her own nonconformity.

5. People who choose safety talk about time concerns.

Many of the subjects talked openly about their fear of the unknown and the unpleasant experiences they'd had in the past. But some of the subjects who walked through Door #2 said they'd done so out of time concerns--it was a more "efficient" choice or they would waste less time on the experiment that way. Which raises a question: How often do we say we "don't have time" for something when the real truth is we're afraid of it?

6. Some who are scared choose the unknown anyway.

At least one subject who talked on video about his fear of the unknown nevertheless walked through Door #1. That might make you think about all the times in your life you've done something that was a stretch, even though it terrified you. We all know that playing it too safe will hold us back, and so most of us will sometimes choose to do something that frightens us at least some of the time, whether that's skydiving or giving a presentation before a large audience. As one subject noted, it's that willingness to face the unknown that takes us forward on our path.

Perhaps unusually, I correctly predicted which decision four out of the five subjects made. How did you do? And--in case you're wondering--we still don't know what's behind Door #1. Vox has not published that information.

Published on: Sep 25, 2017
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