You can only know yourself to a certain point, in that all the introspection in the world can't compete with your ego always inserting itself into situations and mucking it up. And it turns out that your friends know you better, anyway—so much so that their assessment of your character can predict, more than you can, when you're going to die.


So says a study in Psychological Science called, appropriately, "Your Friends Know When You're Going to Die." Researchers found that your peers can predict your mortality, not because they're psychic, but because a.) they know you—the real you, and the personality traits you possess (or don't) that tend to affect longevity, and b.) there really is such a thing as crowd wisdom, if the crowd is comprised of people you know.

Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian writes of the study:


The reasoning behind this goes as follows: we've long known that certain personality traits are correlated with a long life. Conscientious people, for example, are likely to eat a healthier diet, exercise more, and avoid stupidly dangerous risks like drunk-driving. And your friends, it turns out, are often better judges of how far you possess those traits than you are. Which, as Nathan Collins explains at Pacific Standard, makes their judgments of your character a better predictor of your lifespan than your own.

That's partly a matter of numbers: as in all sorts of other contexts, you're better off asking the views of several people and then averaging the results, rather than relying on just one. (The researchers concluded that this was indeed the main explanation for their results.)

One interesting tidbit: The study itself notes that it was conscientiousness and openness among men that predicted long life, but emotional stability and agreeableness (as rated by friends) that predicted many sunsets for women. And, in both cases, friends were better at predicting these traits than the self-reported assessments of the people themselves.

In other words, your friends as a group know you better than you do. On the surface, I have to say, this seems pretty obvious. But I think we all still believe, to some degree or another, that there is something about us hidden from plain view—a secret self, a more real self perhaps, that no one can truly know or see. That may in fact be a load of shit, and the kinds of elaborate rewrites, omissions and polish jobs we do on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, are perhaps just that—nice little fluffers that don't amount to a hill of beans when it comes to who we really are. So much for thinking you're holding your cards close to the vest.


Burkeman cites another study that backs up this claim about the reliability of acquaintance judgment: a study in Science Magazine, 2008, that found that people could more accurately predict their reaction to an event (or person) when they knew what their neighbors thought. Female undergrads were given information about prospective speed dates (5 minutes long) and then asked to guess how much they thought they'd like the guy. One group was given biographical information about their would-be suitor—a description of his looks, his age, where he was from, and a few of his favorite things. Everyone assumed that this sort of intel would help them make the most accurate guess, too.

But the thing that helped them guess the most accurately was not finding out all the information themselves and analyzing it, but rather, knowing what another woman thought. "The best way to know if you'll like a person, place or experience may not actually be to gather all the detail you can, then compare it against all your hard-won experience," Burkeman concludes, "but instead to find someone broadly similar to you and ask if he or she enjoyed it."


It's sort of dizzying to think how firmly we believe that our up-front access to ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our whims and desires, and all our own personal history gives us the best shot at making great choices for ourselves about our futures, when in fact it may all work against us. Burkeman contends:

But [self-knowledge] also gives you overconfidence in your judgments; an emotional resistance to facing certain awkward facts; and an outsized sense of your uniqueness and importance. (That doesn't only go for arrogant types, either: social anxiety is, at least in part, a matter of overestimating how much effort others are putting into judging you.) It's extraordinarily difficult to accept that you might be deeply statistically normal, and best advised just to do whatever most normal people in your situation have done in the past.

Burkeman suggests that it's helpful to think of yourself in the third person.

Instead of "Is this the sort of job I'd enjoy?" or "Is this a house I'd like to live in?", ask yourself "Would [your name] find this fulfilling?" Just don't do it out loud, or eyebrows may be raised.

Eyebrows, indeed. Jimmy played pretty good.


But apparently this is an actual thing and it really does the trick for some people. Writing at Psychology Today, Gretchen Rubin explains:

I find that often, the same trick helps me to be realistic about myself. "Gretchen gets frantic when she's really hungry, so she can't wait too long for dinner." "Gretchen needs some quiet time each day." "Gretchen really feels the cold, so she can't be outside for too long."

Yes, I admit, this approach makes me sound a bit affected and self-important, but the thing is, it really works.

Rubin goes onto say that this can help for people who find it challenging to pay attention to their own needs, and that in her case, she needs a more indirect route to self-knowledge to do so.

But doesn't listening to yourself and knowing what's best for you mean drawing on the very thing—self-knowledge, intimacy with your own preferences—that the earlier study suggested was unreliable in predicting future outcomes? So I guess, then, that the best approach is to consider what you want, and then run it by a friend to see if that sounds about right. Unfortunately for most of us, that is way too much consultation for a grown-up. You want to keep these friends, right? I have to say, part of the thrill of life choices is part logic and part winging it, and seeing how the whole crazy mess shakes out. And it's one thing to have friends tell you what they think you'd like, but maybe your real happiness includes some strange, ineffable quality that can't be predicted? Because you're special?



Nah, says Burkeman:

Or ask yourself what your friends would advise you to do. After all, they know you better than you know yourself – and, by the same logic, you know them better than they do. And you're all a lot more average than you probably like to think.


Illustration by Tara Jacoby.