Prospection: Experiencing the Future

Authors: Daniel T. Gilbert (Harvard University) & Timothy Wilson (University of Virginia)

Publication: Science

Year: 2007

Focus Area:

Relevance: If falling for a scam is partly the result of a victim incorrectly forecasting what will make them happy, then learning how to more accurately predict future feelings may help protect them.

Summary: Our notion of how we will feel in the future is based on simulation, or “prefeeling” – a combination of simulating an event, reacting to it internally, and then predicting that whatever we feel now is what we will feel when the event occurs.  Predictions can be flawed if the simulation is:

  1. Unrepresentative – by remembering the unusual instances the best, when we are called upon to envision something about the future, we think of the most memorable (and unlikely) situations in the past.  Our predictions become less accurate.
  2. Essentialized – by imagining the best or worst features of a future event, we fail to account for the many small things that will lessen the strength of whatever feelings we experience.  Bad events are not as bad and good events are not as good as we generally predict.
  3. Abbreviated – by simulating only key elements of a future occurrence, we tend to focus on the immediate repercussions of an event, and fail to anticipate how we will adapt to a given circumstance with time.

People also mispredict their future feelings when a simulation is decontextualized.  When the context in which the scenario is envisioned (and experienced cognitively) is different than when the scenario occurs (and is experienced actually), the feelings experienced are different.  Given that the context will likely change over a given span of time, predictions are frequently inaccurate.

Author Abstract: All animals can predict the hedonic consequences of events they’ve experienced before. But humans can predict the hedonic consequences of events they’ve never experienced by simulating those events in their minds. Scientists are beginning to understand how the brain simulates future events, how it uses those simulations to predict an event’s hedonic consequences, and why these predictions so often go awry.

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