When it comes to imagining the emotional impact that future events will have on us, humans are poor predictors. Studies have shown that in forecasting our responses to events ranging from receiving a gift to being granted tenure, from being mildly insulted to learning of a serious illness or experiencing the death of a family member, people typically misjudge how good or bad we will feel--and for how long.

Two new studies indicate that our ignorance of how we'll cope with future circumstances compromises our decisions and paradoxically undermines our happiness.

"We underestimate how quickly our feelings are going to change in part because we underestimate our ability to change them," concludes Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, PhD. "This can lead us to make decisions that don't maximize our potential for satisfaction."

The new studies get at the core of people's ability to act rationally, says Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, PhD, who conducts research on decision-making and well-being.

"If people don't know what they're going to want and they don't know how they're going to feel about what they get," he explains, "then rational planning of action becomes extremely difficult."

The 'psychological immune system'

In the past several years, Gilbert and social psychologist Timothy Wilson, PhD, of the University of Virginia, and their students have probed people's ability to make "affective forecasts," or predictions of their emotional responses to future events. In studies examining a range of participant populations, including university students, faculty and others, the researchers have measured people's imagined and real reactions to a multitude of positive and negative events.

The studies have shown that people aren't good at forecasting their responses to emotional incidents. In particular, the researchers have found that people typically overestimate how long they will be unhappy following negative events. In short, the studies suggest, people forget that they possess what Gilbert, Wilson and their colleagues call a "psychological immune system," which shelters them from the worst effects of their misfortune.

Gilbert and Wilson believe that this unawareness of the psychological immune system may stem from a number of sources. First, they have found, people often fail to consider that the emotional impact of painful circumstances may be buffered by other, more positive events. Second, people are extraordinarily skilled at construing what happens to them in a positive light.

"People are famous--in folklore, in literature and especially in our own field--for making the best of bad situations," Gilbert points out. But, he suggests, that's an ability of which most people are only dimly aware, leading them to underestimate how their feelings will change over time.

The price of freedom

Ignorance of the psychological immune system "bedevils our decisions" in important but often unseen ways, Gilbert argues. That conclusion is borne out in a series of recent studies that examined how decisions' permanence affects people's satisfaction with their choices.

In collaboration with Jane Ebert, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gilbert first presented participants with a hypothetical decision--to keep one of two photographs that they would develop during a photography course. In one version of the course, they would be allowed to change their minds about which photo to keep. In another version, the decision would be inescapable. Participants read descriptions of both versions of the course and rated which they would prefer and how much they would be willing to pay to ensure that they got their preferred version.

The results showed that most participants preferred the course that would allow them to change their minds. Further, participants who said they would choose the escapable decision were willing to pay a 25 percent premium, on average, above the cost of the hypothetical course. Participants who indicated they would choose the inescapable decision, in contrast, were not inclined to pay a premium for their preferences.

In a second study, Gilbert and Ebert compared people's predictions of how escapability would affect their feelings about their decisions with the actual effects of such reversibility.

To make this comparison, the researchers conducted an actual photography course in which participants shot and developed photos and chose one to take home. Half of the participants were told that they would be allowed to later change their minds about which photo to keep, and half were told that their choices would be final.

After participants had developed their photographs and chosen one to keep, half, assigned to a "forecaster" condition of the experiment, were asked to predict how much they would prefer their chosen photo over the other in four days.

Other participants, assigned to an "experiencer" condition, rated their preference after two days and again after nine days. In between these preference assessments, four days after developing the photos, experiencers in the escapable condition were offered the opportunity to change their minds about which photo to keep.

Gilbert and Ebert found that forecasters expected that their ability to revise their photo selection would have no effect on their liking for their chosen photo. But experiencers' ratings belied that expectation: Compared with experiencers whose decisions were escapable, those who were not allowed to change their minds showed a greater preference for their chosen photo two and nine days after they had made their decision.

In fact, the results suggested, experiencers whose decisions were escapable were likely to regret their decisions.

"These results show how our penchant for freedom, opportunity, choice and leaving our bridges unburned can backfire," says Gilbert. "None of us likes the feeling of being trapped, so when given the opportunity to escape our commitments, we shrug and say, 'Sure, why not? How could it hurt to have a little extra freedom?' This study shows how it can hurt--and that people will pay good money to do it anyway."

The findings bolster a growing understanding among decision researchers that there is such a thing as too much choice, says Princeton's Kahneman.

"This study also highlights a mistake in the lay psychological theory: that people believe choice is going to be good for them, when in fact it's not always," he adds.

Intensity and duration

Just as people tend to be unaware of the effect that escapability has on their happiness with their decisions, Gilbert and his colleagues have found that people's lack of faith in their own resiliency leads them to incorrectly expect that intense negative emotions will always last longer than less intense emotions.

Gilbert recently studied this phenomenon with Wilson and Matthew Lieberman, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. In an initial survey, participants considered nine interpersonal transgressions, such as being turned down for a date, having one's car dented by a hit-and-run driver and finding someone trying to break into one's gym locker. For each situation, participants rated how negatively they would feel toward the transgressor immediately and one week later.

The results showed that participants expected emotions that were more intensely negative to last longer than would less intense emotions.

A second experiment suggested, however, that people's psychological immune systems kick in when distress reaches a critical threshold. Research participants predicted that being insulted by a person with whom they were to interact would sting for longer than would being insulted by a stranger.

Instead, the researchers found, the reverse was true. An insult from an interaction partner indeed led participants to feel more intensely negative than did an insult from a stranger. But those intense feelings abated more quickly than the less intense negativity caused by the stranger's insult.

Like the results of the escapability studies, the finding that people expect more intense emotions to last longer suggests a lack of insight into the psychological immune system, Gilbert believes.

"We don't realize we have this ally," says Gilbert, "and as a result we don't put it to particularly good use."

If we did, he explains, we might sometimes choose higher levels of distress, knowing it might be ameliorated more quickly than less intense distress. Or, he points out, "We might choose to be in situations where there is no possibility for escape, knowing that we'll ultimately be likely to be happier with our choices."