Useful emotions

Useful emotions

What do emotions do for us? What if we’re wrong about how we’ll emotionally react to future events?


Recently, we began a line of research to determine the extent to which people are able to anticipate their future emotional reactions to events. People try to make decisions that will improve their lives, and to do so they rely on what are called “affective forecasts” – predictions about how future events will make them feel. In other words, they ask themselves how happy a future event will make them and use that information to decide what goals to pursue and what situations to try to avoid. People rely on these forecasts to make decisions from the mundane, such as what movie to see or whether to go to the dentist, to the monumental, such as whether to have children or what career to pursue. Understandably then, inaccuracy in affective forecasting has been identified as one of the major barriers to effective decision-making. If people cannot accurately forecast how they will feel in the future, then their decisions are doomed to be wrong. Over a decade of research has found that people tend to overestimate the impact of future events, believing that they will react more strongly to future events than they actually do. Researchers have argued that, as a result of this bias, people spend time and effort pursuing positive outcomes that will not be exhilarating as they thought, and trying to avoid negative outcomes that will not be as devastating as they predicted.


The robustness and pervasiveness of this bias has been widely accepted in research articles, popular science books, and the media. However, we conducted a series of studies demonstrating that this view is oversimplified, and that there are important moderators of forecasting accuracy. We demonstrated people are able to accurately forecast the intensity of their emotional reactions to events in the future. They are not so accurate, however, when predicting how frequently they will feel that way.


Perhaps you are trying to determine how much money to spend on your impending wedding ceremony. You consider the finances, of course, but you also imagine how deliriously joyous you will be on that day and for the lifetime of bliss that follows. Past findings suggest that you are wrong, that you will not be as happy as you think, and that the money would be better spent on other things. Our recent findings paint a very different picture, however. Our findings suggest that during your wedding ceremony you will likely be just as joyous as you thought you would be – your happiness will be just as intense as you forecast. You will also be as happy as you thought when you think about your ceremony. But you are likely to be wrong about the lifetime of bliss that follows – you will not be happy about your wedding as frequently as you forecast. Our preliminary results suggest that this is because you do not think about your wedding as often as you thought, as you become busy with other things. Should you spend the money or save it for another day? We are currently conducting studies to find out what the implications of accuracy and inaccuracy in forecasting might be for success in life and well-being.


We were recently funded by the National Science Foundation to continue this work by investigating bias in forecasts of intensity, frequency, and duration of emotional reactions to events, and the mechanisms underlying those biases. As part of this project, we will also be able to offer recommendations about how to prompt people to be accurate about the future when they need to be.


Heather C. Lench is Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Head, Texas A&M University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.