As high school seniors this week make final decisions about college by the May deadline, many are making whirlwind campus visits with the goal of finding the best fit.
The college tour has become a seemingly compulsory step in the college application process, particularly for students interested in competitive four-year schools. According to US News & World Report: “Before choosing the best college to attend, it is important for students to test the waters. Making a college visit and touring the campus can be pivotal in a student’s decision.”
Of course, as anyone who has been on a guided campus tour knows, they tend to highlight aspects of the college experience that are peripheral to education, such as tasty meal plans, state-of-the-art athletic facilities and cozy dorms.
But insights from research in psychology and behavioral economics suggest a counterintuitive reason to skip them: College tours may hinder students’ ability to pick a college that will further their interests and goals.
This has to do with the difference between our present selves (the self making the decision — in this case, where to attend college) and our future selves (the self experiencing the outcome of this decision). As Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia have argued, our present selves believe we are good at making decisions for our future selves, but in fact we all do a relatively poor job of predicting what our future selves will actually value and enjoy.
For example, if you try a new restaurant, would you prefer to select your meal from the menu, or let someone who had already eaten at that restaurant choose for you? Most people unquestionably prefer to choose their own meal. But research in Dr. Gilbert’s book “Stumbling on Happiness” shows that while people expect that they will be happier with the meal of their own choosing, they actually enjoy more the meal selected for them by an experienced stranger.
How can this be? Because if we are making a decision we haven’t made before (such as where to go to college) then our present selves must rely on imagination, instead of experience.
It’s challenging to imagine attending a college we haven’t seen yet, so visiting the campus — to take a tour, meet students, get the lay of the land — seems like a prerequisite to making a good decision. But visiting a college is not the same as being a student there, and this distinction matters a lot, because of the many ways in which our imagination misleads us.
As a decision-making tool, imagination is inherently flawed. It necessarily omits significant details, while filling in gaps and leaving out other features in such a way that we don’t notice what we’ve made up or what is missing.
Our imagination is also biased by the here and now, using details borrowed from the present to fill in our view of the future. So if we happen to meet a group of fun-loving students on our visit, we’ll be inclined to imagine the college as a fun-loving place, forgetting that there are many other students with different temperaments we are likely to encounter if we enroll. Similarly, a run-in with an unfriendly professor will also color our view.
This tendency to focus on what is in front of us without considering what is less visible is also known as saliency bias. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “What you see is all there is.”
So whatever students see or experience during a brief campus visit — whether it’s a sunny day or an ill-prepared tour guide — will inevitably stand out and have a disproportionate affect on their decision-making.
Since we ourselves are such poor predictors of what will make us happy, who is better positioned to guide our decisions? Other people. Specifically, other people who have recently had the experience we are contemplating. Dr. Gilbert calls them “experience surrogates.” In the case of choosing a college, that would mean talking to current students or recent graduates.
Experience surrogates are best used as proxies for our future selves. So instead of asking surrogates for information as inputs to our imagination, we instead ask questions about their goals and actual experience, such as “Why did you consider attending this school? Are you happy to be here? Knowing what you know now, would you make the same choice? Would someone like me be happy at this school?” If the surrogates’ goals and values are aligned with ours, and they report a positive experience, this body of research suggests that we should make the same choice and move on. In a sense, the experience surrogate decides for us. This runs counter to our strong impulse to “test-drive” or preview a possible future in the cinema of our imagination.
But if imagination is such a poor tool for making decisions, then why do so many people depend on it? Partly because we believe we are different from most people, and not prone to the same biases and pitfalls. Even after learning about the reliability and effectiveness of using “experience surrogates” instead of imagination, few people do it. The myth of individuality is strong.
So why isn’t there an epidemic of students who find themselves in the wrong place and either transfer or drop out? Maybe there is. The only way to know would be to compare transfer and dropout rates between incoming students who used imagination to inform their decision, and those who relied on experience surrogates instead. Such data is lacking.
That said, most students would probably say they feel good about their college choice (even if they could have done objectively better) because of our “psychological immune system,” which buffers us from the unpleasant effects of negative events, and helps us to find the good in whatever situation we find ourselves in.
It might be argued that even if incoming college students could choose better by using experience surrogates, it doesn’t matter since they will be “saved” by their psychological immune systems. Perhaps, but imagination still has pitfalls, and experience surrogates are cheaper and objectively better. Why not use them?