Forecasting the Future

Every decision, big or small, is made based on the belief that it will ultimately make us happier than would any alternative choice. Unfortunately, human beings aren't very accurate in predicting their emotional reactions to future events. Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., a Harvard University psychology professor, discusses his research on this tendency, called affective forecasting, and why we don't really want to improve our power to predict.

Susan Fiske: What is affective forecasting?

Daniel Gilbert: It's the study of how and how well people predict their feelings should particular events unfold.

How does it play into our everyday lives?

We take action predicated upon the belief-explicit or implicit-that one action will lead to greater rewards than some alternative action. Whether we're trying to decide what to have for breakfast, or whether or not to get married, every decision is based on the belief that one choice will probably lead us to feel better than another choice.

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How have you investigated this notion?

We've studied minute events, such as receiving negative personality feedback, and events of greater importance, such as the election of presidents. What we find in all of these instances is pretty much the same: People almost always overestimate the intensity and duration of their future emotional reactions. For instance, when asked to predict how they will feel two months after a breakup, people often expect to feel devastated. But when you compare them with those who have already gone through a breakup, you find that the effects tend to be milder and wear off much more quickly than was predicted.

Why are we so bad at forecasting our own emotions?

There are a number of reasons. One phenomenon we've studied is called focalism. If, for instance, I were to ask you how you would feel six months after your child died, you would probably get a mental image that shakes you to your very foundation. Then you might imagine how you'd feel in six months and think, "I suppose I'd feel a little less devastated later." What you don't do is imagine any of the other events that might happen in those six months-interacting with your remaining children, for instance, or going to a party-that have a small but cumulative impact on your recovery. A second reason is something we call immune neglect. Human beings have the ability to make the best of a bad situation. After anticipating a devastating divorce, say, people find that their spouses were never really right for them. I like to say that people have a psychological immune system. We suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more capably than we might predict.

So just like we get over a cold faster than we might anticipate, we also get over psychological assaults more quickly.

The difference between the physical and psychological immune systems is that we know we have a physical immune system and that we'll get over a cold pretty quickly. The psychological immune system tends to be invisible to us, so we act as though we're out there without any psychological defenses. But once these defenses spring into action, we surprise ourselves with how resilient we really are.

Can we become more accurate in affective forecasting?

Probably, but first we should ask whether or not we want to. It's very easy to see somebody making a logical error and say, "Well, you ought not to have made it." But logical errors can serve an important purpose in human cognition. Imagine a world in which some people realize that external events have much less impact than others believe they do. Those who make that realization might not be particularly motivated to change the external events. But one of the reasons we protect our children, for example, is that we believe we would be devastated if they were harmed or killed. So these predictions may be very effective in motivating us to do the things we as a society need to do, even though they might be inaccurate on an individual level. Anyone who wanted to cure affective forecasters of their inferential ills would be wise to measure both the costs and benefits of forecasting errors.

What advice would you offer instead?

Grandmothers' advice: "It's always darkest before the dawn"; "There are other fish in the sea"; "Time heals all wounds." However, when these cliches are presented to people who are suffering, they may fall on deaf ears, so I'm not sure that it does a lot of good to present them with facts on how quickly people tend to recover from catastrophe, trauma or loss.

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