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Impact Bias: Why We Overestimate Our Emotional Reactions

impact bias

The impact bias is our tendency to overestimate how good (and bad) we will feel in the future — things are never as good (or bad) as we imagine.

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.

Examples

The impact bias pervades our lives, with studies finding 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.

The impact bias helps explain why almost anything that happened more than three months ago has no effect on our current levels of happiness.

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 to avoid 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.

It helps to recall your worst experiences

One study has suggested a way we can correct for the impact bias (Morewedge et al., 2005).

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.

Emotional decisions about the future

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.

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