Study Finds Simple Way To Predict Behavior: Just Ask Users

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Scientists have discovered a deliciously simple way to improve the prediction of human behavior, the holy grail of social and consumer research: just ask users why they make certain decisions. Researchers from the University of Vermont found that the crowd offered better insight at predicting their own household energy consumption and Body Mass Index than the traditional way of using hard-to-gather data such as demographics, sleeping patterns, or house architecture. In other words, if you want to predict people’s behavior, just ask them. The ironic simplicity of this approach cannot be overstated. Billion-dollar websites and major government initiatives battle legal hurdles to collect, buy, and sell the best user data, while this new research suggests there may be a much easier solution.

Researchers Josh Bongard and Paul Hines devised a simple way to solicit users opinions on their own Body Mass Index (BMI). Participants were solicited from Reddit and other social networks to input their own BMI and were given the opportunity to submit and answer other user-generated survey questions. It turns out, the user-generated questions were impressively predictive (and completely non-intuitive).

We’ve listed the top five user responses below. Careful readers may find that “How often do you masturbate a month?” was, indeed, the second-most predictive question. Clearly, Internet-couch potatoes may have some unforeseen insight into the slothful nature of workday porn indulgence that may prove to be a valuable indicator of obesity.

  1. Do you think of yourself as overweight?
  2. How often do you masturbate a month?
  3. What percentage of your job involves sitting?
  4. How many nights a week do you have a meal after midnight?
  5. 5 You would consider your partner/boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse etc to be overweight?

“Sometimes the general public has intuition about stuff that experts miss — there’s a long literature on this,” said Hines. “It’s those people who are very underweight or very overweight who might have an explanation for why they’re at these extremes — and some of those explanations might not be a simple combination of diet and exercise,” concurred his colleague, Bongard. “There might be other things that experts missed.”

While the research is (very) preliminary and doesn’t answer the perennial Internet debate about the value of collective IQ vs. experts, the methods are so simple that any business could already start experimenting with their own brand of crowdsourced intelligence. If you come up with a novel way to use this research, shoot us a tip or comment below.

[Image Credit: Flickr User milos milosevic]