Anticipating One's Troubles: The Elusive Benefits of Negative Expectations

Why expecting the worst is costly

Posted Jun 15, 2009

"I'll never get this done." "I'm so gonna fail." Anticipating these potential negative outcomes could have some benefits, couldn't they? The anticipation of negative outcomes could serve to attenuate (or decrease) the negative emotions when the negative outcome finally arrives. Isn't it some sort of strange way to "pay up front?"

This notion of anticipating future negative events has the post-event benefit of attenuation. Conversely, it is argued that the negative anticipation could pay off post-event if the result is unexpectedly positive, as we would then experience amplification of the positive emotions of success. Not expecting the success leads to even more joy in this case. Unfortunately, a recent study by Sarit Golub (Hunter College, CUNY), Daniel Gilbert (Harvard) and Timothy Wilson (University of Virginia) indicates that expectations had affective consequences in the pre-event period, but not the post even period. Let me explain their research briefly and then discuss this in relation to procrastination.

Their research
In three short studies, Golub, Gilbert and Wilson examined whether negative expectations produce post-event benefits that might justify their obvious pre-event costs. The first two studies were traditional experiments, whereas the third was a self-report study in the "field setting" of students awaiting examination results.

The studies had a common design: 1) test of some sort, 2) waiting period for the results, 3) manipulation or measurement of anticipated results, and 4) release of the test results. During the waiting period and again after receiving the results, the researchers measured the participants' affective states (how they were feeling).

They "expected to find that the pre-event costs of negative expectations would be more readily observed than the post-event benefits" (p. 278).

I'm going to focus specifically on their first study in a little more detail. This lab experiment had 36 Harvard undergrads complete a computerized personality test (described to the participants as reliable and valid), on which basis they could be assigned to one of three "types" - A, B or C. Participants read summaries about each type, and they learned that A was best and C worse (with B somewhere in between). A cover story was created for the experiment where the researchers explained that a psychologist in the next room would hand-score the results as part of their development of a computerized scoring key. While the participants waited, they could get the results from the computerized scoring program to get a sense of how they did.

The experimental manipulation here was the participants' expectations. Using a random assignment, some participants saw their classification as A, B, or C with the following probability: 91%, 9% or 1% respectively. This was the positive expectation condition. The negative expectation condition simply had the probabilities reversed, so that the participants in this group expected they were personality type C. (Note that the control condition was that participants had no opportunity to view the computer's predictions; they simply awaited the results.)

Five minutes after learning the computer's prediction, participants indicated how happy and disappointed they felt, and five minutes later that they got what they thought was the "true" score. In the case of the first study, this was that they were Type C - the most negative personality type. Finally, 2 minutes after receiving this result they were again asked how happy and disappointed they were.

Their results
Participants felt worse 5 minutes before the event when they had negative rather than positive expectations. Surprisingly, the post-event experience did not differ based on expectations. Irrespective of having negative or positive expectations, both groups felt equally bad 2 minutes after receiving their "true" personality scores. As the authors summarize it, "In short, negative expectations had pre-event costs but no postevent benefits" (p. 279).

For the sake of completeness, I want to add two more points.

  1. In experiment 2 that involved positive feedback on the personality measure, the results indicated pre-event benefits but no post-event costs when they got the bogus feedback that they had the "worst personality type."
  2. In the 3rd experiment in the classroom based on anticipating mid-term results, "participants with positive expectations felt better 3 days before receiving their grades but did not feel worse a day after actually receiving them, whereas participants with negative expectations felt worse 3 days before receiving their grades but did not feel better a day after receiving them" (p. 280).

In sum, the authors write, "Although expecting the worst can sometimes make people feel better in the postevent period and can sometimes induce them to work harder in the pre-event period [something defined by Norem & Cantor as defensive pessimism], our studies suggest that the affective benefits of negative expectations may be more elusive than their costs" (p. 280).

Implications & Concluding thoughts
Interestingly, when the authors explain their results they offer an answer to this question: "If negative expectations do little to attenuate the affective consequences of receiving a poor exam score or unflattering personality feedback, then why do most people seem to have some compelling intuitions to the contrary?" (p. 280).

Their answer hinges on the notion of the timing of the imagined consequences. Research has shown that when we think about events that extend over time, we tend to think about the early moments of the post-event period. For example, if we imagine becoming paraplegic, we imagine the moments immediately after the injury, not the 1,000th day later, and typically over-estimate how bad it will be (an example of our poor affective forecasting). In the end, they argue that

"Expectations may have only brief consequences, but because people who are thinking about a future event tend to imagine the very moments in which such consequences are most likely to be realized, they may overestimate the benefits - and underestimate the costs - of expecting the worst" (p. 280).

As you sit thinking about the "dreaded task" that looms ahead and which you have been putting off until tomorrow, it's worth thinking about our tendency to think about the first few moments of the task (and the negative feelings that might bring) as opposed to the work on the task itself and the good feelings you might feel as you progress. In any case, all of the emotion invested in anticipating that negative outcome will only make you miserable now. There's little benefit, if any, to anticipating one's troubles, even though we seem to do this far too often.

We are, as Dan Ariely writes, predictably irrational.

Reference
Golub, S.A., Gilbert, D.T., & Wilson, T.D. (2009). Anticipating one's troubles: The costs and benefits of negative expectations. Emotion, 9, 277-281

Blogger's Note: My apologies again for my lengthy absence from the blog. The spring has brought an excess of travel for conferences and talks, as well as the end to a busy term on campus. I anticipate that my upcoming sabbatical will bring more time for and renewed focus on my writing. You know, hope springs eternal that I can "do it tomorrow!" ☺