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mar 10 2010

Will you like a destination? Scientists say, "Ask a stranger."

Daniel Gilbert (Courtesy PBS)

Researcher Daniel Gilbert is one of the world's foremost authorities on how ordinary people can learn to make smarter decisions. He studies decision-making in lots of different situations. But the first paragraph of this new profile of Gilbert in Harvard Magazine has relevance to travelers in particular.

Your parents recommend taking a Caribbean cruise and tell you about a discount deal. You've never taken a cruise and aren't so sure you'd enjoy it, so you dig up some information on the Web and even watch a couple of videos. You recollect the times you've been on ships, and your past visits to Caribbean islands—rum drinks, aqua waters. But will you really enjoy an eight-day cruise? Turns out there is a better way to answer this question: ask anyone who has just gotten off a cruise boat—a total stranger is fine. That way, you'll be 30 to 60 percent more likely to accurately predict your own experience than by basing your decision on painstaking research and inner speculations.

Another traveler's verdict is "a useful guide because we are far more similar to each other than we realize."

A key part of the cruise example is that you need to ask people who have just gotten off a ship. According to Gilbert's study (published in a recent issue of the journal Science), the other traveler'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?"

This research may sound counter-intuitive to some people, though it certainly explains the popularity of user-review sites like TripAdvisor.

What do you think? Will you ask a stranger (or friend or family member) who's just back from a destination whether you should go there? Or will you make up your own mind?

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Read the blog for his book Stumbling on Happiness

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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