6 Reasons Why We Can’t Accurately Predict Our Feelings

Things are not always as we predict they would be.

Posted Jul 23, 2020

We try to make decisions that will improve our lives and make us happy. And to do so, we rely on predictions of how we will feel about the future outcomes of those choices, such as career change, or where to live (Gilbert & Wilson, 2007). Research overwhelmingly suggests that people are not very good at predicting correctly how they will feel about the events that might unfold (Lench et al., 2019). Being aware of these errors can help people make informed decisions. To improve decisions, we need to somehow experience and appreciate the emotional state we will be in.

1. How our memory misleads us. Memory is critical to our emotional response to events. We learn from our memories rather than from our actual experiences. The way we remember events is not necessarily made up of the amount of time we were engaged in the situation. Instead, we tend to remember and overemphasize the best or worst and the last moment and neglect the duration of the experience (Kahneman, 2011). This explains why normally the bad ending ruins the whole experience. For example, negative endings (a bad flight) can take away from the overall trip, even if the vacation was positive. And, the remembered experience will impact the desire of whether to repeat the vacation.

 JJ Jordan/Unsplash
Source: JJ Jordan/Unsplash

2. Projection biasThe projection bias is a cognitive bias in which we falsely project our current preferences onto our future preferences (Loewenstein, 2004). 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. We don’t know who we will be when we are experiencing a future event.

3. Adaptation. People adapt to changes in their circumstances but they often fail to appreciate the degree to which they will adapt. Additional material goods and services initially provide extra pleasure, but it is usually temporary. The extra pleasure wears off (Frey, 2008). For example, when a person first moves from a small apartment to a large one, she will be happy, but with the passage of time, her happiness tapers off. On the other hand, the things we fear (e.g., breakups) are not as bad as we think.

4. Focusing illusion. The essence of this bias is a failure to see the big picture. We focus too heavily on a single good or bad event when considering how that event will make us feel about our lives (Kahneman, 2001). For example, imagining the positive feeling associated with getting a new job but failing to consider the extra commuting time that would come with it. It is important to look beyond the initial excitement and novelty to the time when the choice will be a routine part of everyday living.

5. Arrival fallacy. Arrival fallacy is the illusion that once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness (Tal, 2009). The problem is that achievement doesn’t equal happiness. Pursuing goals isn’t a problem. It only becomes a trap when you focus on its attainment for your happiness in life. The pursuit of goals is equally important as the goal achievement.

6. Rationalization. Most of us also underestimate how good we are at rationalizing the decisions that we make (Elster, 2007). The process of rationalizing reduces the emotional power of the events. For example, most people who enjoy eating chocolate reason that chocolate has antioxidants. But that is not the motive why they eat chocolate. It is just a rationalization to feel less guilty about eating something high in fat and sugar.


Elster (2007), Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

Frey B (2008), Happiness: A revolution in economics, MIT Press. 

Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 317, 1351–1354.

Kahneman Daniel (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lench HC, Levine LJ, Perez K, Carpenter ZK, Carlson SJ, Bench SW, Wan Y. (2019), When and why people misestimate future feelings: Identifying strengths and weaknesses in affective forecasting. J Pers Soc Psychol. May;116(5):724-742.

Loewenstein, George, and Ted O’Donoghue. 2004. Animal Spirits: Affective and deliberative influences on economic behavior. Working paper, Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University.

Tal Ben-Shahar (2009), The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. McGraw-Hill Education.