Humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future, which means we’re also terrible at predicting which decisions will make us happiest over the long term. When Tyson Brazell stumbled upon research showing that people are less satisfied with their lives than they were in 1974, despite the massive technological gains that have occurred in the past four decades, he decided to do something about it.
Brazell quit his job in finance and started SentioSearch, a site designed to help people make decisions based on best practices in psychology. Instead of asking people to predict what will make them happy, SentioSearch asks its users to help figure out what will make other people with similar personality traits happy. "We’re taking this old idea of asking people for advice because we’re bad at predicting the future and applying the most recent psychological research to make sure it’s directly applicable," says Brazell.
I signed up for SentioSearch to see what the site’s users had to say about whether I should spring for a new laptop or stick with my old, battery-drained—but still mostly functioning—current model. Upon registering, I rated my responses to a handful of statements (a sample statement: I consider myself a competitive person). Then I asked the crowd: Should I buy a new laptop? In three days, the response from my "decision surrogates" came back—88% of people like me chose to buy a new laptop, but in general, they were extremely dissatisfied with the decision.
Now, there are any number of reasons why a person might be dissatisfied with that decision. And it’s hard to say exactly how alike I am to the 20 to 200 people that responded to my question (that’s the representative sample range).
Brazell’s mechanism for figuring out how alike people are consists of two components: psychological (current level of subjective well-being, approach to the world, values) and experience (if you have no experience in a certain category and someone else does, you’ll likely experience things differently). Respondents aren’t allowed to leave comments—so if there happened to be an outlier who had a horrific but compelling experience buying a new MacBook Pro, I wouldn’t be swayed. "We want it to be a clear picture of what’s happening based on numbers and averages," says Brazell.
At the moment, there’s no real incentive structure for people to answer questions. "The idea is you get to track the impact of your experiences," says Brazell. If I decided to buy a new laptop and was happy about it, I’d input that sentiment on SentioSearch, and all the people who responded to my initial question would be notified.
SentioSearch has about a thousand users; the site launched in beta in mid-January with little fanfare. Brazell, who is bootstrapping the five-person startup, doesn’t ever plan to charge for SentioSearch’s core features. Says Brazell: "Some things we’ve discussed are broadening into other kinds of decision coaching, maybe even in-person rationality courses."
As for my decision? I still haven’t made up my mind. But the Sentio crowd is probably correct: If I buy a new laptop (and I’m inclined to), I’ll probably wish that I had waited.
"Ultimately the story we’ll want to tell is that using the site improves subjective well-being x percent year over year," says Brazell. In order to do that, though, SentioSearch will have to convince people not to make decisions they know are bad.