Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Delusions of grandeur II: Overexcited, overanxious, and ready for action

Beliefs about future feelings affect our actions now.

This series of posts examines both inaccuracies in our judgments about the future and the consequences of those judgments for our behavior. This post focuses on judgments about our future feelings.

Toy train setWe often mis-estimate our future happiness or sadness. As children, we have all had the experience of wanting a toy we saw in the store or in a catalog and pestering our parents incessantly for it. We are sure that having this toy will bring us hours of joy, but on those cases when our wish was granted, we often tire of the toy soon after we have unwrapped it. On the flip side, it is common to deeply dread a future dentist visit, only to have the visit be much less painful than the dread that preceded it.

Dan Gilbert and his colleagues have studied the difficulties people have predicting their future feelings. His work suggests that people typically do overestimate the influence of particular events on future feelings. Big positive events like getting married or getting into a graduate program have little effect on long-term future happiness, despite expectations that they will make people much happier. Big negative events like losing a job have little or no long-term effect on sadness, despite people's expectations.

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Gilbert suggests that when people think about the long-term influence of an event on their future feelings, they fail to take into account all of the other factors that influence happiness and sadness. He has been particularly interested in the fact that people are able to overcome significant negative events by drawing closer to family and friends, pursuing new opportunities, and reframing the negative event to make it less devastating to self-concept.

Clearly, there are some costs to estimating our future feelings incorrectly. Overestimating the sadness we will feel if we fail at some task can lead to worry and anxiety. That worry and anxiety is painful in the present, and so concern about future sadness can actually decrease our well-being in the present.

Is there value in being wrong about future feelings? A 2009 paper by Tobias Greitemeyer in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people may use information about their future feelings to determine how strongly to engage in a task. He gave people tests that people were told would measure intelligence. People tended to overestimate how happy they would be to find out that they had high intelligence and to overestimate how sad they would be to find out that they had low intelligence. However, the happier they thought they would be if they succeeded, the longer and harder they worked on the test, and the more confident they were that they would succeed. The sadder they thought they would be if they failed also led them to work harder and longer and to be more confident in success. So, overestimating happiness and sadness led people to put more effort into ensuring success.

This potential strength of overestimating future feelings is also a potential weakness. Ultimately, we would like to put our effort into those things that really will lead to good future outcomes for ourselves. All that time spent pestering our parents to give us the desired toy as a child did not really increase our happiness that much. So, while our beliefs about our future happiness and sadness may increase our chances of future success, we have to be careful to focus our efforts on outcomes we really do wish to achieve, and to avoid wasting effort on outcomes that only seemed like good ideas at the time.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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