I'm a self-identified political progressive, so I'm feeling pretty low right now. The country's future looks bleak, and the Tea Party scares the bejesus out of me. But I'm taking some solace in what I've learned about the heuristic mind, in particular the "futuristic heuristic." This powerful cognitive bias makes it very difficult to accurately assess how we will feel down the road, especially when we are at an emotional peak-either elated or depressed. Here is a short excerpt from my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, taken from the chapter called "The Futuristic Heuristic: A Wrinkle in Time":
"Everyone has a favorite image from election night 2008, a moment seared into memory. For me, it was the spontaneous outpouring of young celebrants, black and white, into Washington, DC's U Street corridor, not far from my house. U Street, home to the famed Lincoln Theatre and Ben's Chili Bowl, was once the center of African-American culture in DC, until it was burned and gutted by the race riots of the 1960s. It has taken decades for this historic neighborhood to recover from those divisive times, so to see it throbbing with youthful hope was poignant and exhilarating.
I am writing this just a few days after the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, an historic event no matter what your political stripe. But you are reading this much later. As I write I am filled with hope and expectation, like much of America, yet even as I write, I wonder how I will feel a year or two from now-how the country will feel. Can we carry that excitement and good will into the future? Are our expectations too high?
Psychologists are very interested in how the mind processes events like Obama's election, and how it turns them into either hopeful anticipation or regret and disappointment. How powerfully do our experiences today shape our emotions of tomorrow? How good are we at seeing the future, and using what we see to guide us today? In short, what predicts future happiness?
Researchers call this emotional forecasting. Humans are arguably the only animals capable of imagining what doesn't already exist, conjuring up detailed future scenarios. That's a trait of our highly evolved brains, but evolution apparently stopped short-because we're not all that talented at predicting our own state of mind. Indeed, study after study has shown that we're usually way off the mark with our predictions. We believe that winning the lottery will make us blissful, and it rarely does. We think being jilted will devastate us, yet we almost always bounce back.
Why are we so bad at this? A growing cadre of psychologists-Dan Gilbert of Harvard, Timothy Wilson of Virginia, and others-have been exploring the cognitive machinery of emotional forecasting-and its failures. Their studies point to a few possible reasons for our failures of imagination, which might be collectively called the futuristic heuristic.
There appears to be a fundamental asymmetry in the way we think about the future and the past. The future is more interesting, more important and more valuable than the past, even if we're thinking about the exact same event. Just think about something coming up in the weeks or months ahead, something you're excited about-a new job, a big date-or something you are dreading. Now think about the same event in the past; you know it was important once, that it stirred emotion for you, but it's hard to get excited or upset about it now.
This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, because even our very primitive brain had this sense that the future was important in terms of survival. The past is gone, and has no threat or promise. The future has both. . . . Indeed we may be wired for unfounded expectations, both good and bad. Our brains are clever enough to know the future is coming, but not nearly clever enough to automatically project ourselves into it and analyze future events rationally. This distortion is compounded by another deep-wired cognitive tendency-the tendency to view events in a vacuum, without any context. With the Obama victory, in order to realistically project ourselves into the future, to view the Democratic victory in some kind of historical perspective, we would have needed to say something like this to ourselves: This is an amazing event, unprecedented in history, but there are inevitable political realities and obstacles, plus tomorrow I have to revise my resume because work isn't going so well, plus my kid may be coming down with the flu, and my old Saab's transmission is likely to give out, and on and on. In other words, there is a lot going on in our lives, but the brain can only do so much, and when you're celebrating an historic event, it is pretty much eclipsing all the other stuff. But all that other stuff will creep back into focus over the days and weeks and months ahead. And so we get the inevitable let-down.
But is it inevitable? Is there anything we can do to avoid these cognitive pitfalls? Well, perhaps. Scientists believe that people can train themselves to avoid the errors of emotional forecasting. They did a series of experiments that offer some hope. They studied college students at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, just before and after a big football game between these longtime rivals. They asked them to predict how happy (or sad) a victory (or loss) would make them in the future, and then they actually measured the volunteers' sense of well-being later on.
But here's the twist. They had some of the students keep a prospective "diary" before the game. That is, the students projected themselves into the future and wrote down everything that they imagined they would be doing day to day, either after a victory or after a disappointing defeat: studying for exams, partying with friends, writing papers, playing video games, and so forth. They found that those who did this-who basically put the prospect of a depressing loss (or joyful victory) into the perspective of daily life-had much more realistic expectations for their future happiness. The event lost its potency, good or bad. You might not want to do this for life's little victories-why not savor the imaginary joy of a football victory?-but it offers a tool for tempering the emotions of a big disappointment."