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Affective forecasting, intentions and why we procrastinate

Happiness now, pay later - Affective forecasting & procrastination

We take action or make intentions for action believing that the action will make us feel better. This is the perceived hedonic consequence of future events. The trouble is, the research on affective forecasting shows that we're terrible at predicting how we will feel in the future. I think this is a key issue in understanding procrastination.

Affective forecasting is a hot topic in psychology. You'll find that it's been written about just about everywhere over the past decade (see for example Psychology Today or The New York Times). At the heart of this research are a number of people, but most notably psychologists Dan Gilbert (Harvard University) and Tim Wilson (University of Virginia).

The main idea behind the studies in this area is that we have a bias when we predict future affective states in relation to positive or negative events. For example, assistant professors when asked to imagine that they don't receive tenure will predict that this will strongly undermine their happiness even 5 years later, however a comparison of those who had and hadn't received tenure show similar levels of happiness. Similarly, a couple of years after winning a lottery, lottery winners were about as a happy as they were before their win, despite the general affective forecast that we would be much happier if only we could win the lottery.

There are a number of concepts used to explain these peculiar findings including the notion of focalism. Focalism is the tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings in the future. We can make decisions or choices, or we can set intentions, without taking into account a temporal context for our decision. For example, we set an intention for an action tomorrow without taking into account how we'll feel tomorrow, we simply assume that our present feelings will continue. My favorite example of this is setting the alarm for 5 a.m. as you slide into bed at midnight with the intention of an early-morning run. On what are you basing your affective forecast? - On your present optimistic feelings that night of course. This is certainly not how you're feeling 5 hours later in the darkness before dawn. The consequence? You hit snooze, roll over and change the intention. Some would simplify this to - you procrastinate.

There are other common experiences of this. If you go grocery shopping just after a meal, you'll generally underestimate how much you'll eat in the week ahead and buy less. Addicts who have just ingested their drug of choice, will underestimate how much they will crave the drug later. Irrationally, predictably irrationally as Dan Ariely would say, we think how we're feeling now is how we'll feel later. The most astonishing thing about this is that it's true for simple things like current and future hunger states.

My focus is on what this human bias in affective forecasting means to our understanding of procrastination. I think a key issue from this research is related to why people tend to display such a robust presentism, that is, a strong tendency to overestimate the extent to which their future experience of an event will resemble their current experience or their imagined experience of that event. There is an atemporality to our thinking that creates a bias favoring presentism emotionally.

How is this related to procrastination?
By this point, my argument may be apparent. In making an intention for future action, we focus on our current affective state with the tacit (but mistaken) assumption that our affective state at the point we expect to act on our intention will be the same as it is now.

The real catch here, I think, is that when we intend a future action, our affective state is often particularly positive. Why? Because we're putting off action until the future (at the very least a relief), or we're imagining ourselves engaged in some action that we perceive will make us happy, and this is pleasant in and of itself. This is particularly true for actions related to future health behaviors. For example, if I intend to go for a run tomorrow, I feel good about myself for making such a proactive health-related intention. Good for me! My current affective state is positive, and I incorrectly forecast that my affective state tomorrow at the intended time of the run will be the same.

The thing is, this is presentism at its best. I'm not thinking about events in the future with temporal accuracy (or even correcting for atemporal first impressions). For example, I am not thinking about how I usually feel at 5 a.m. on any given day - tired! And, when I'm tired, I'm not particularly happy. I'm basing my feelings about running tomorrow on my feelings at the moment I'm making the intention.

However, at 5 a.m. when I awake to the alarm tired and unhappy to be so tired, the temptation is to "give in to feel good." That is, I will now take the more preferable action, preferable because I anticipate I'll feel better, and that is to sleep. Short term gain, but long-term consequences for my health goals.

What I like most about this analysis of procrastination from an affective-forecasting perspective is that it moves us away from an overly cognitive perspective of decision making based on utility. My decisions are not irrational based on utility so much as they are irrational because of my own optimistically biased prediction of my emotional state.

The benefits of being inaccurate and biased
Ah, forecasting. It seems that all of our forecasts - economic, meteorological and even affective - are terribly inaccurate, and this comes with a cost. However, Gilbert and colleagues also raise the question of what advantage this biased forecasting might have? In the case of our intentions, I think it has everything to do with feeling good about ourselves. There's nothing like a righteous intention now for action later to make us feel good. I'll run tomorrow. I'll do that assignment tomorrow. I'll write that report later. . . Happiness now, pay later (or not, as the case may be).

Unless we can get better at "mental time traveling" where we can set intentions with clearer knowledge about how we'll feel about taking action in the future, I think we'll continue to be predictably irrational in our procrastination.

In my next posting, I'll address a potential "default forecast" and an implementation intention that may help reduce procrastination.