- Most people make big mistakes when estimating how much they'll want or enjoy something in the future.
- These errors in judgment can have serious effects on decisions that must be made years in advance.
- Poor affective forecasting might also be a defense mechanism, though, and holding a bias toward the positive could even be good for you.
Those who’ve never heard the term “affective forecasting” might relate a little better to an anecdote. Ray, a colleague of mine, told me recently he’d been asked to take his two nephews skiing for the day. This would mean an early morning, a drive of several hours to the ski resort, a long wait to rent equipment, and an expensive set of lift tickets—all for a day whose weather was already shaping up to be poor. Ray told me he liked to ski but hated all the effort and struggle surrounding the sport, and expected that the whole day would be drudgery. When I checked in with him afterward, though, his tone had brightened a great deal. It turned out Ray had had a wonderful time: No one had bickered, the weather had been fine, and the drive had been relatively easy, with no traffic. Ray told me he was surprised it had been so hard to know ahead of time whether the ski day would turn out to be fun.
Have you ever found yourself in this position—where your anticipation of how you’ll feel doesn’t match the outcome? Very likely, you have: As Matt Johnson of Psychology Today reports, most people aren’t very good at predicting how they’ll feel in the future. And the fluctuations of our moods don’t help, either. If you’re feeling cheerful today, it’s quite difficult to anticipate unhappiness later on. The opposite is true, as well, as people experiencing suicidal ideation will generally overestimate the amount of sadness they’ll feel in the future (Bauer et al., 2022).
The concept of “miswanting,” or the tendency to erroneously predict the amount one will enjoy something later, (Pelham, 2004), represents another way to conceptualize the same notion. Even something that seems universally pleasant, like ice cream, can be used to show this effect: Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman once offered study participants the chance to eat free ice cream every day for a month and took notes on the amount of enjoyment the subjects anticipated. Predictably, though, the study showed “little or no correlation” between the amount of pleasure the subjects expected to take in their daily ice cream treats and the amount they actually did (Kahneman & Snell, 1992).
The principle of salience
Apart from the general difficulty in understanding ourselves and predicting our own futures, then, why is accurate affective forecasting such a challenge? After all, getting in touch with one’s future self seems like a psychologically helpful thing to do. (One well-known Los Angeles Times article from 2020 pointed out that when students were shown a photo of themselves that had been artificially aged with a smartphone app, they became more motivated to set aside money for the long-term future.) But no, as Johnson pointed out in his post, most people remain too impulsive—too eager to grab immediate rewards in the present—to relate to their future selves. They seem to view them as entirely different people whose needs and feelings are too strange and distant to understand.
The principle of salience—of the brain’s tendency to attend to the aspects of their environment that stand out the most—may also be partially responsible. Pelham (2004) calls it “focalism”—focusing too much on a single good or bad event in imagining our future circumstances. A breakup today, for instance, might lead to several years’ worth of predicted romantic unhappiness.
Fortunately, though, the human mind has built-in defenses against being overwhelmed by such negativity—a “psychological immune system,” as Pelham puts it. Our individual defenses—explained here, act to shore us up against confronting experiences or information that might threaten to overwhelm us. This unconscious set of psychological processes may, in turn, be functioning to reduce our ability to accurately imagine our emotional futures.
Risks of poor affective forecasting
Poor affective forecasting comes with a number of significant risks, some of which are financial. First of all, planning for the future by making a practical choice, like taking a job or investing money, involves trying to make things better for your future self. If we don’t understand how our future selves will feel, and view these future selves as separate people, we may not be able to make decisions that redound to our own future benefit. And imagine the difficulty in making end-of-life decisions before you’ve reached the point of confronting the end of your life. Today, you might assume that you wouldn’t want to prolong your life with experimental medications or costly surgical procedures if you get sick. You might assume that a do-not-resuscitate order, or a living will forbidding special medical attention, will reflect your future attitude toward living with pain. Research doesn’t bear this out, however; according to Pelham in Psychological Science Agenda, people who are suffering from severe illnesses or dying generally agree that they’d like to add more time to their lives—even if it’s just a few days.
Positive vs. negative affective forecasting
Proponents of the evolutionary psychology approach might assume, with some basis in fact, that these difficulties in accurate affective forecasting should have some benefit. A 2020 article in Frontiers in Psychology by Colombo et al. speculated that “positively biased [affective] forecasting is an adaptive cognitive distortion that boosts people’s resilience and mental health” and thus promotes “psychological well-being.” Study participants with higher estimations of the positive feelings they’ll experience in the future were found to be more resilient than those who anticipated less future happiness. Being biased toward negative affective forecasting, though—expecting to be more unhappy, later in life—was not found to affect psychological well-being at all. (And be sure to distinguish positive affective forecasting—optimism about your own future—from toxic positivity, a limiting, burdensome effort to be falsely optimistic toward others.)
None of us knows what will happen in the future. Real difficulties may arise, but just as well, we may turn out to be capable of managing these far-off struggles. If positive bias in your affective forecasting is good for you, then perhaps it’s better to imagine happy outcomes than to gird yourself against potential problems.
With this in mind, I’ll leave you with one final thought, observed by Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert. While studying people who had won millions in the lottery, Gilbert compared them to others who had experienced major injuries that would leave them paralyzed for the rest of their lives. As expected, these events had huge effects on the happiness levels of the people involved… but only at the time of the events. When compared to each other later in life, however, the two groups of people felt, more or less, equally happy.
Bauer, B.W., Hom, M.A., Karnick, A.T. et al. (2022) Does Hopelessness Accurately Predict How Bad You Will Feel in the Future? Initial Evidence of Affective Forecasting Errors in Individuals with Elevated Suicide Risk. Cognitive Therapy Research, 46, 686–703. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-021-10285-7
Colombo, D., Fernandez-Alvarez, J., Suso-Ribera, C., Cipresso, P., García-Palacios, A., Riva, G., & Botella, C. (2020). Biased affective forecasting: A potential mechanism that enhances resilience and well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01333/full
Gilbert, D. (2009). Stumbling on happiness. Vintage Books, New York, NY.
Hershfield, H. (2020) A lesson from FaceApp: Learning to relate to the older person we will become. Los Angeles Times, retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-07-26/hershfield-faceapp-relating-to-our-future-selves.
Johnson, M. (2021). How affective forecasting can influence your future self. Psychology Today, retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-brain-and-value/202105/how-affective-forecasting-can-influence-your-future-self
Kahneman, D. & Snell, J. (1992). Predicting a changing taste: Do people know what they will like? Journal of Behavioral Decision-Making, 5(3), pp 187-200.
Pelham, B. (2004). “Affective forecasting: The perils of predicting future feelings”. Psychological Science Agenda. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2004/04/pelham.