Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want

Authors: Timothy D. Wilson, University of Virginia; Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard University

Publication: Current Directions in Psychological Science

Year: 2005

Focus Area: Decision Making, Emotion, Prevention

Relevance: Poor financial decisions, such as falling for a scam, may in part result from a person’s inability to accurately forecast what will make them happy.  If we first understand what causes faulty emotional predictions, and then encourage a more accurate analysis, we may be able to facilitate safer and more appropriate decision making.

Summary: “[P]eople routinely mispredict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring and, as a result, sometimes work to bring about events that do not maximize their happiness” (p. 131).  This tendency is explained in part by impact bias, or an inability to infer the severity or duration of the emotional consequences of an event – positive or negative, partly due to:

  • focalism, or the tendency to disregard all but one aspect of the future when predicting it, and
  • immune neglect, or the tendency to ignore how we explain away negative experiences

These tendencies may in part explain why people:

  • attribute their own resiliency to a higher power
  • prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones (though the latter usually make them happier),
  • may be impacted more significantly by minor events than major ones, and
  • mistakenly predict that losing something will have a greater impact than gaining its equivalent.

Encouraging the following behaviors may help create a more informed perspective and facilitate more balanced decision making:

  • Considering a range of things that make one happy and unhappy (“Many different things, not just the one thing I’m worried about, will influence how I feel in the future.”)
  • Improving one’s awareness of natural coping mechanisms (“Positive events won’t be as good and negative ones won’t be as bad as I anticipate thanks to my psychological immune system.”)

Author Abstract: People base many decisions on affective forecasts, predictions about their emotional reactions to future events. They often display an impact bias, overestimating the intensity and duration of their emotional reactions to such events. One cause of the impact bias is focalism, the tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings. Another is people’s failure to anticipate how quickly they will make sense of things that happen to them in a way that speeds emotional recovery. This is especially true when predicting reactions to negative events: People fail to anticipate how quickly they will cope psychologically with such events in ways that speed their recovery from them. Several implications are discussed, such as the tendency for people to attribute their unexpected resilience to external agents.

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