6 Mental Traps in Predicting Future Feelings

Why you won’t feel the way you do right now?

Posted Jun 18, 2018

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How accurate is the people’s predictions of their future feelings? Predicting the future is inherently difficult. Our minds are designed to see the world as it is right now, rather than from the point of view of the people we are going to become (our self as an experiencer). Behavioral economics provides some insights into ways in which people incorrectly predict how they will feel in the future events (Gilbert and Wilson, 2007). Being aware of these errors should help us know when we are likely to fail in anticipating our own feelings.

1.     Memory plays a key role in preference formation. Memory is critical to our emotional response to events. For instance, the past negative experience with a particular individual predicts one’s future emotional reaction to that person. But our memories of a particular experience tend to be influenced by its most intense point and its end. In general, the way we remember events is not necessarily made up of an aggregate of every individual moment. Instead, we tend to remember and overemphasize the peak (best or worst) moment and the last moment. This explains why normally the bad ending ruins the whole experience.

2.     Downplaying nonessential details. Predictions often focus on essential details (e.g., the joys of parenthood) while omitting nonessential details that can influence future happiness (e.g., how it will feel to change diapers or go into work not having slept the previous night). Imagining the positive feeling associated with getting a new job but failing to consider the extra commuting time that would come with it. Being aware of the human tendency to focus on one detail while overlooking others can be the first step in avoiding this bias.

3.     These emotions will pass. People adjust to changes in their circumstances but they often fail to appreciate the degree to which they will (Dolan, 2014). Additional material goods and services initially provide extra pleasure, but it is usually temporary. The extra pleasure wears off. On the other hand, the things we fear (e.g., breakups and election results) are not as bad as we think. However, there are a few changes that can have lasting effects, such as divorce, unemployment and the death of a spouse. So, when you find yourself in an unpleasant state of mind, simply remind yourself that “this too shall pass” to put perspective on the good and bad times in your life.

4.     Looking from one emotional state to another. We tend to be caught up in the present and act as if our future preferences will be more like our current preferences than they actually will be. Our current feelings guide what we desire and what emotional value we assign to things now. For example, a person will buy the new exercise equipment on the day when his valuation (driven by the excitement of the new year resolution) exceeds the total costs (purchase price and time commitment). This bias supports the age-old folk wisdom that shopping on an empty stomach leads people to buy too much. People who are hungry act as if their future taste for food will reflect such hunger.

5.     Focusing illusion. The focusing illusion occurs when people attach too much significance to a distinct feature of a possible choice (Kahneman, 2011). For example, in deciding where to live, people tend to focus on a few key aspects that they will enjoy in the new city, such as beaches or warm weather, and overlook the others, such as commute time and congestion. In the context of a relationship, one might say, having a child would have saved the marriage, overlooking the fact that having a baby add a lot of stress to a marriage. The essence of this bias is a failure to see the big picture.

6.     Cognitive dissonance. In the Aesop’s fable, the fox tries hard to get his hands on a tasty vine of grapes, but fails in all of his attempts to acquire the grapes; at which point the fox convinces himself that he really didn’t want those grapes that badly after all. The moral of this story is that we strive to ensure that the picture we have of ourselves is coherent (not dissonant), which is a means for maintaining a positive self-evaluation. For example, when a young man is dumped by his girlfriend, he might feel devastated at first, but he might think, ‘‘She was not that great anyway’’ and would stop feeling so sad. The process of rationalizing reduces the emotional power of the events.  They become ordinary events.

References

Dolan (2014) Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Avery Pub Group.

Kahneman Daniel (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wilson, Timothy D.; Daniel T. Gilbert (June 2005). "Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 14 (3): 131–134.