Overestimating The Emotional Impact Of Future Events

New research suggests a way we can correct for a well-established bias in how we imagine our emotional reaction to future events. Just imagine for a moment how you would feel if you won the lottery tomorrow. Alternatively, imagine how would you feel if someone close to you was badly injured in an accident. Chances are that in imagining your own future feelings, you have overestimated their strength – both positive and negative.

Participants in this study were split into two groups and carried out a similar task of imagining their reactions to future events as you’ve just done. One group were asked to recall their worst experience, while the other group were asked to recall any bad experience.

What they found was that those people who had been asked to recall their worst experience were likely to make more moderate predictions about their future feelings. These more moderate predictions have been shown in previous research to be more accurate. This is because people tend not to experience the extremes of emotions that they often predict for themselves.

This has serious implications for all our decisions about the future. Are there things you need to do that you are avoiding, because you imagine they will be too painful? Research like this shows it’s highly likely you are over-estimating the strength of your emotions. A way around this problem is to imagine the worst related thing that has happened to you personally and evaluate the future in this context.

Let me know if it works!
The least likely of times. How remembering the past biases forecasts of the future [via BPS Research Digest]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 24 August 2005

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