For decades, psychologists have repeatedly documented the basic human tendency to display unwarranted overconfidence. People attempting to lose weight believe that on this next attempt they will succeed despite numerous failed attempts in the past. Gamblers remain optimistic that this time they will beat the house, despite a history of evidence to the contrary. All of us experience the “planning fallacy,” or the tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete an upcoming task. (I, for example, had planned on finishing this post several weeks ago!)
Why does this occur? In recent research, Cornell University psychologists Erik Helzer and Tom Gilovich offer a novel explanation. According to these researchers, there is a prevalent belief that the power of one’s will is stronger in the future than in the past. In other words, the future is still open to multiple different outcomes, while the past is limited to the outcome that actually occurred. No amount of exertion can change the past. Thus, because the future affords more opportunities to harness their will to guide their actions, people believe that the role of the will is generally stronger in future events than in past events.
This contributes to overconfidence by leading people to discount the past relative to the wide-open future. In other words, people optimistically take advantage of the unknown and view themselves more in control of actions that are about to occur. Things will be different this time.
This is what Helzer and Gilovich did to test these ideas. In one study, participants were asked to think back to a time when they performed a particular activity (e.g., doing well on an exam, losing a competition) in the past or to imagine performing the same activity in the future (e.g., doing well on an equivalent future exam, losing an equivalent competition). Then they were asked to rate the extent to which their will, chance factors, or fixed factors (like innate ability) contributed to the outcome by assigning each a percentage (from 0 to 100). The sum of percentages had to equal 100%. Helzer and Gilovich found that while the percentages assigned to chance and fixed factors remained equivalent whether the event was in the past or in the future, the percentage assigned to the will was significantly higher for future events (48.3%) than for past events (39.3%).
In a second study, participants considered not their own action, but that of a fictional person named Peter. They were asked to imagine that Peter accomplished a feat of strength (60 pushups – 15 more than his personal best) one year ago or to imagine that he will do the 60 pushups one year from now. The researchers found that even when the actor was another person, participants elevated the impact of the will in the future relative to the past. Past versus future did not affect participants’ ratings of the role of Peter’s physical strength and chance factors.
Further studies suggest that it is not the case that people believe that people will have more willpower resources in the future. Instead, the data suggest that people consider the willpower they have to be more potent in the future than in the past.
But is it possible that people are optimistic about the future simply because they have the capacity to learn from their mistakes? (“I have learned what I did wrong the last five times I tried to lose weight – this time I will do the right thing.”) Helzer and Gilovich do not deny that people sometimes learn from their mistakes. But they argue that people often overestimate their ability to apply these lessons. In so doing, they underestimate the degree to which uncontrollable forces produced their previous failure – uncontrollable forces that still exist now as they approach the upcoming attempt.
So what can we learn from this? Clearly, avoiding the seductive planning fallacy is one of the most difficult of our many daily challenges. But perhaps there is promise in just stopping to consider how our (often irrational) beliefs about the future can lead us down a garden path. Knowing the root cause of the problem is half the battle. Let’s see how it goes for me; now that I am armed with this knowledge, will I do a better job of keeping to my PT blog deadlines?
Helzer, E.G. & Gilovich, T. (2012). Whatever is willed will be: A temporal asymmetry in attributions to will. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1235-1246.