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Affective Forecasting: The Perils of Predicting Future Feelings

Miswanting refers to the fact that people sometimes make mistakes about how much they will like something in the future. That is, people often mispredict the duration of their good and bad feelings.

By Brett Pelham

We can all remember times when we've found ourselves in trouble by misspeaking, misremembering, or miscalculating. Psychologists Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson, who study affective forecasting, believe that there are also times when we can get into trouble by miswanting. If you are wondering how anyone could ever miswant something, consider how wanting is intrinsically tied to predicting. To want something is to predict that when we get it, we will feel good. Moreover, the better we think something will make us feel, the more we want it.

Here lies the problem of miswanting. However, the problem is not that people do not know the difference between apple pie and a knuckle sandwich. Instead, miswanting refers to the fact that people sometimes make mistakes about how much they will like something in the future. That is, people often mispredict the duration of their good and bad feelings.

There are several reasons why people mispredict how they will feel about future events. One reason is focalism: we focus too heavily on a single good or bad event when considering how that event will make us feel about our lives. In the case of negative future events, a second reason is that we are typically unaware of the operation of our own psychological immune systems. When a terrible event befalls us, the psychological immune system jumps into action, in much the same way that our physical immune system jumps into action when we encounter a life-threatening virus. However, because the psychological immune system is largely unconscious, most people don't realize its power.

In one early study of affective forecasting, Gilbert and colleagues documented a common belief among assistant professors: they believed that their tenure decisions would strongly influence their long-term happiness. They then checked this prediction by assessing the actual happiness of two groups of former assistant professors: those who had received tenure and those who had not. The result? Those who had failed to receive tenure in the past few years were just as happy as those who had achieved it. Similar results have been observed in labs across the country. For example, a classic study by Philip Brickman and colleagues showed that, even in great quantities, money doesn't buy happiness. A year or two after hitting the big numbers, lottery winners were about as happy as they were before striking it rich.

Researchers who study affective forecasting have shown that our failure to appreciate how quickly we adapt to good and bad events applies to our reactions to such diverse events as having one's beloved team lose a college football game and having someone else win the hand of someone we love. Those who study affective forecasting have also turned their attention to less dramatic events by showing that mildly bad events occasionally bother us longer than seriously bad events. In one study, Gilbert and colleagues asked some people (forecasters) to predict how much they would dislike someone who had recently insulted them. They asked others to predict how much they would dislike the same insulting stranger when they merely observed the stranger insult someone else in the very same manner. Not surprisingly, people expected to dislike a stranger more after they had personally been the victims of his criticisms. But if people's psychological immune systems only kick into gear when they have personally been insulted, then people might actually dislike insulters less when they become the object of attack. When people were put in this actual situation, this is precisely what happened. Victims disliked insulters less than those who were mere observers. Presumably, more intense interpersonal threats often trigger quick, self-protective responses that mute our initial feelings of dislike.

Do these studies have implications for important life decisions? Gilbert and Wilson think so. For example, they noted that in some living wills, people specify that if they ever reach a point at which the quality of their life is very low, they do not wish to receive any special medical attention that would prolong their life. However, when medical researchers interviewed people who were slowly dying and experiencing a very low quality of life, such people almost unanimously reported that they would go to great lengths to add even a few days to their lives.

In another example, Gilbert and Wilson recently noted that drivers may practice safe driving habits more rigorously when taking long trips than when driving around the block. "If a trip to another state triggers the decision to wear a seat belt and a trip around the block does not, the paradoxical consequence is that people may be more likely to sustain injuries in automobile accidents when they are taking short rather than long trips" (Gilbert et al., 2004).

For Further Reading

Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.

Gilbert, D. T., Lieberman, M. D., Morewedge, C. K., & Wilson, T. D. (2004). The peculiar longevity of things not so bad. Psychological Science, 15, 14-19.

Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. J. (2002). Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 503-514.