Why You’re a Sucker for the Impact Bias

Psychologists have found that the impact bias is one reason we are often poor at predicting how future events will affect us emotionally.

The impact bias is our tendency to overestimate our emotional reaction to future events. Research shows that most of the time we don’t feel as bad as we expect to when things go wrong. Similarly we usually don’t get quite the high we expect when things go right for us. There are exceptions – such as being in a bad mood will tend to make us more realistic about future positive events – but these are far from the norm.

Studies have found that:

  • Two months after a relationship finishes people are generally not as unhappy as they expect.
  • Sports fans are generally not as happy as they expect when their team wins.
  • Academics overestimate how happy they will be when given tenure, and also overestimate their unhappiness at being denied tenure.

This research also show that people overestimate both the initial intensity of their emotional reaction, and also how long it will go on for.

Causes of the impact bias

The impact bias is a pretty reliable finding, so why does it happen? Wilson and Gilbert (2005) find two main reasons:

  • Focalism: when people think about the impact of future events they tend to forget about all the other things that are going on in their lives. In reality the one event we are imagining will likely be overshadowed by all sorts of other events that happen at the same time. We conveniently forget that the future will always contain many other events we can’t predict, some positive and some negative.
  • Sense-making: people have a natural tendency to rationalise what happens to them. When something bad happens we initially feel unhappy but immediately start searching for the underlying reasons. Once when we’ve decided on the cause(s) of this bad event, we start to feel better. For us bad events that are predictable and which submit to rational explanation are not as scary as random unexplained bad events.Unfortunately the same process also works for positive events – when we rationalise them we reduce their impact on us (read more on this in my post on how to feel more pleasure).

Both making sense of an event as well as our tendency for focalism probably happen either completely unconsciously or at least partially unconsciously. Consequently we often don’t realise we’re doing it.

How can you correct for the impact bias?

Considering that these processes are probably unconscious it may be difficult. But evidence does suggest two options. When considering how a future event will affect you:

  • Think about all the other events that will happen in the future; consciously widen your future focus.
  • Remember that you will usually quickly rationalise any event, thereby reducing its emotional impact on you. This is good news for negative events, but less good for positive events. To feel more pleasure, do all you can to hold on to the mystery.

» This post is the first in a series on biases in our affective forecasting.

» Read more on the science of happiness.

[Image credit: only alice]

Reference

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131-134.



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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: 5 May 2008

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