One of the most striking differences between humans and other animals is our unique capacity to imagine being something, someone or somewhere else. In contrast, cats in pursuit are incapable of empathizing with pursued mice, dogs shivering in the northern winter are incapable of longing for next summer, and horses in confined paddocks are incapable of imagining the freedom of roaming wild.
For all its sophistication, though, our capacity to imagine alternative states is far from perfect. Even our deepest imaginings fall far short of complete immersion, and we're always left in psychological limbo somewhere between the present and a loosely sketched alternative.
There's plenty of evidence for these shortcomings in how we think and behave. Researcher George Loewenstein coined the term cold-to-hot empathy gap, which describes the difficulty of imagining what it's like to be in a hot state when you're currently in a cold state. For example, it's difficult to imagine what it's like to be famished (the hot state of being hungry) when you've just eaten a big meal (the cold state of not being hungry). Perhaps this example explains in part why wealthy, overfed people typically remain unmoved when asked to donate money and food to chronically underfed people half a world away; they're incapable of imagining the pain of chronic hunger because they're always full. Based on similar logic, dieters and financially deprived consumers are better off shopping for food after a big meal than when they're hungry--when you're full (a cold state), it's hard to imagine ever being hungry again (a hot state).