Affective Forecasting – Feeling Our Way Into The Future

Wouldn’t it be great if we could know ahead of time how we will react emotionally to events happening in the future?   How much easier it would be to make choices and decisions today knowing the impact of those decisions ahead of time?  Accurate affective forecasting could alleviate so much anxiety and fear by giving us a glimpse of how we will feel if we choose to do this rather than that.  If only we had a crystal ball to guide us and show us the emotional impact awaiting us in the future following a decision made today.

A compelling and immensely interesting study done by two American psychologists – Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert (Gilbert of Stumbling on Happiness fame), reveals that we are not very adept at predicting today what our affective response will be to various events occurring in the future.  In fact, we are very poor at it.  We can plan future events and prepare for them in several practical ways, but our emotional response to those future events remains out of conscious reach.  We simply cannot predict future feelings with any amount of precision.

According to the study, we mostly over-estimate the impact of an event on our emotions and feelings.  As a result, we fear making changes, and decisions become difficult if not impossible to make as we envision the dire consequences awaiting us down the road.  We imagine that a negative event will leave us miserable forever, that we will never overcome it, that we will suffer endlessly, and that we will be forever unhappy.  Wilson and Gilbert disagree.  They say that overwhelming evidence proves otherwise and there are several reasons for it.

Impact Bias

One of the most important biases that we hold with respect to future reactions to an event has to do with the impact that it will have on us.  Over and over, Wilson and Gilbert’s research has shown that the impact or intensity of the feelings we expect to have is almost always much less than we imagine.  We think that we will suffer and be affected by an event much longer than we actually are according to the two psychologists.

Duration Bias

Another mistake we make is to imagine that we will suffer negative consequences for much longer than research actually shows.  According to the study, we overestimate not only the impact an event will have, but also how long it will last.  So, not only do we mistakenly assume that we will be absolutely miserable if an event we perceive as negative occurs, but that we will be that way forever – or at least for a very, very long time.

But emotions and feelings are not simple nor straight-forward; they are highly complex and difficult to gauge.  We may for example, accurately predict the intensity of feeling, but perhaps we will be surprised at the kind of feeling we actually experience.  In other words we will not necessarily feel the expected sadness in a situation, we might instead feel angry, or perhaps we will feel afraid.  We simply are not good at predicting the actual type of feeling we will have.  Other times we might be right about the feeling, but completely off the mark with respect to its intensity, or duration.


It seems that we also focus in on only one aspect of a future event, rather than take in the whole.  We tend to visualize future events in a vacuum, and that just isn’t the way things really are.  Events do not occur in a vacuum, but rather, they happen in tandem with many other events that will catch our attention and influence our emotions.   This focalism skews the reality of the future event in our minds.

Sense Making

Another fascinating bias we have about how we will react to future events is what Wilson and Gilbert call “sense making”.   Humans have a desire and a need to make sense of events in order to be able to deal with them.  We need to do this in order to get over difficult emotional events that occur in our lives.  It is a process that is largely automatic and nonconscious and allows us to reduce the intensity of an emotional reaction to an event.  We need to be able to do this to survive heart wrenching, emotionally traumatic events in our lives.  It seems we are predisposed to see order, pattern, and meaning in the world and we find randomness, chaos, and meaninglessness unsatisfying.  Human nature abhors a lack of predictability and the absence of meaning.  I can attest to this..  Unfortunately, we tend to leave this out of the equation when we attempt to anticipate how we will feel with respect to a future event.  Yet another error in our attempts at affective forecasting.

But there are more.. 

The Psychological Immune System

We humans possess powerful defence mechanisms to protect our egos from the onslaught of overly traumatizing events in our lives.  Gilbert sees this as a powerful tool against the impact of negative events.  Our defences will detect and neutralize, unbeknownst to us, events that challenge our sense of well-being.   These include dissonance reduction, self-affirmation, motivated reasoning, self-deception, positive illusions and terror management, to name a few.  We are better equipped than we think to deal with negative events in our lives.  But we forget, and we fail to take this into consideration when considering future negative events, adding one more error to our attempts at affective forecasting.

Empathy Gap

Confusing matters even more is the emotional state we are in when we are contemplating a future event.  Wilson and Gilbert call this the Empathy Gap and say that the mood or state of mind we presently own has an impact on how we visualize ourselves and our emotions in the future.   Happy mood, future seems bright; blue mood equals perceived dark days ahead.  It is a mood filter through which we visualize future events, but in fact has no correlation with the way we will actually feel when the event occurs.  It is a perception without basis.

You would think that we would remember the inaccuracies of our reactions to past events, ie: – our expected reaction was not as bad, or didn’t last as long as we thought – and, that this would help us understand our errors in affective forecasting for future events.  Unfortunately, Wilson and Gilbert’s research tells us that our affective memories of past events are equally poor and biased, and that there is no guarantee that the feelings we seem to remember experiencing, (good or bad) are actually the ones felt at the time. 

It would seem that knowing how inaccurate we are at predicting our affective future states would freeze us into permanent inertia, but I tend to think the study is somewhat comforting.  It seems to tell us not to be afraid because it’s never quite as bad (or, unfortunately, as good), as you think it is going to be.

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