On a typical day, we all implicitly make predictions about future events.
For instance, you may predict that your partner will return home in a sour mood because of recent work challenges. Likewise, you may find yourself anticipating a reminder from your massage therapist, letting you know that you’re due for your next visit.
In the same way that we make predictions about upcoming events, we also make implicit predictions about our emotional reactions to these events.
For instance, you may be bracing yourself to feel irritated on your partner’s behalf when you hear the details of another tough day. Alternatively, you may anticipate feeling tranquil and relaxed when receiving your massage later in the week.
The process of anticipating your future emotions in this way is known as affective forecasting. And the process of affective forecasting is critical for managing our expectations, looking forward to the good things, and pushing us to “plan for the worst.”
In this article, we’ll break down a definition of affective forecasting, walk you through its history, and present several examples of its relevance in everyday life, drawn from examples in research.
This Article Contains:
- What is Affective Forecasting?
- A Brief History of Affective Forecasting
- 8 Examples of Affective Forecasting
- Studies on Affective Forecasting
- Drivers of Affective Forecasting Errors
- How Affective Forecasting Impacts Happiness
- Affective Forecasting and Decision-Making
- Affective Forecasting and Social Interaction
- Recommended Viewing
- A Take-Home Message
What is Affective Forecasting?
Affective forecasting, quite simply, refers to the prediction of one’s future emotions (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003).
Adopting this definition, Wilson and Gilbert (2003) identify four specific components of emotional experience that one may make predictions about:
- Valence (whether the emotion will be positive or negative);
- Specific emotion(s) experienced (e.g., guilt, excitement);
- Intensity of the emotion(s); and
- Duration of the emotion(s).
In other words, when we attempt to predict our emotions, we generally consider whether these emotions will be positive or negative, what specific ones we will feel, how intensely we will feel them, and how long they will last.
As you will discover, we can be relatively ineffective at predicting our emotions due to biases in our perceptions and influences in our environment.
A Brief History of Affective Forecasting
The science of affective forecasting stems from related work by Kahneman and Snell (1992) in the area of decision-making.
In this work, these scholars refer to a practice known as hedonic forecasting, which refers to “implicit or explicit forecasts of utility that will be experienced at a later time” (Polyportis, Kokkinaki, Horváth, & Christopoulos, 2020).
In this definition, ‘utility’ refers to “the quality and intensity of the hedonic experience associated with [an] outcome” (Kahneman & Snell, 1992, p. 188). So, taken together, this work focus on people’s predictions about how much pleasure they stand to gain from making particular decisions.
The notion of affective forecasting splintered from this work when researchers, Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert, observed that we are not always as happy as we thought we anticipated when we get the things we want.
Indeed, the idea of wanting something inherently involves affective forecasting as we are predicting that we will feel happy (or any other positive emotion) when we obtain what we desire. This idea gets at the crux of affective forecasting, illustrating how we form expectations about our feelings in response to specific events.
Today, research has shown that we engage in affective forecasting when predicting not just positive emotions, like happiness, but also negative and more multifaceted emotions, such as hostility and loneliness (Wenze, Gunthert, & German, 2012).
Further, and as we will show, factors such as present mood and focus of attention often lead people to engage in biased emotional forecasting, overestimating the happiness they stand to gain from an event or anticipating pain in favorable situations (Wilson, Wheatley, Meyers, Gilbert, & Axsom, 2000).
8 Examples of Affective Forecasting
Affective forecasting is something we all do every day. We do it even without noticing.
Don’t believe me? As an experiment, try selecting a day on which you commit to noticing all the times you predict your feelings about a future event. Each time you catch yourself anticipating a future emotional experience, jot down a few notes about your prediction.
Signs that you may be engaging in affective forecasting are if you find yourself experiencing a physical reaction in response to future-focused thoughts. For instance, perhaps you might notice your heart race a little in anticipation of a romantic dinner date.
These physical reactions occur because presently felt emotions sometimes signal the emotions we expect to feel in the future. Such emotions are referred to as anticipatory emotions (Davis, Love, & Maddox, 2009).
Therefore, your racing heart in anticipation of your upcoming date may be because you feel excited. Alternatively, your heart may be pounding due to nervousness or a feeling of dread–two more examples of anticipatory emotions.
Taking a day to experiment with affective forecasting in this way will not only help you better understand the concept but double as an opportunity to practice a little mindfulness, thereby allowing you to become aware of your own cognitions and anticipatory emotions.
To help you, here are some examples of affective forecasting you may observe in a typical day:
- You think about an upcoming holiday and look forward to relaxing mornings and fun, excitement-filled nights in paradise.
- Dreading a visit to the dentist, you feel your palms grow sweaty as you anticipate the discomfort and pain of having your teeth cleaned.
- You wake up and look forward to your morning coffee, anticipating the jolt it will give you to start your day.
- You observe yourself growing nervous about a presentation at work, predicting that you will feel fearful speaking in front of an audience.
- You feel impatient as you wait for your baby to be born and expecting to feel joy, happiness, and peace after the birth.
- As you wait at a local coffee shop, you look forward to the arrival of an old friend and expect to feel contentment and nostalgia as you discuss memories of high school.
- Alternatively, you may worry what your old friend will think of your current life and circumstances, expecting to feel embarrassed or, ashamed when comparing achievements.
- In the stands at a heated football game, you expect to feel delighted when your favorite team wins the match.
Studies on Affective Forecasting
Much of the existing work in affective forecasting has answered questions regarding how accurately we make predictions about our future emotions.
Further, it considers the factors most likely to bias or support accurate predictions.
In what follows, these supportive or hindering factors are considered according to each of affective forecasting’s four defining components–valence, specific emotions, intensity, and duration.
Studies on the Accuracy of Predicted Valence
For the most part, we are typically good at predicting where our emotional experiences will lie on a basic spectrum from pleasant to unpleasant.
For example, Wilson and colleagues (2002) staged a simulated dating game, whereby university students competed for a hypothetical date with an opposite-sex student. Whether a student won or lost the date was actually randomized.
Prior to competing, participants forecasted the valence of their mood if they won versus if they lost. As one might expect, all forecasters anticipated that they would feel positive if they won, and indeed, this is what they were shown to feel.
While this finding may seem obvious, there are factors stemming from our past experiences, present-moment experiences, and environment that may lead us to make inaccurate predictions regarding even the basic valence of our emotions (more on this later).
Studies on the Accuracy of Specific Predicted Emotions
Overall, research indicates that we tend to have narrow, simplistic ideas about the specific emotions we will feel in the future, leading us to make inaccurate predictions.
One driver of these inaccurate predictions is temporal distance. That is, how far in the future a specific event is situated.
According to findings from Liberman, Sagristano, and Trope (2002), people tend to be poorer at forecasting the specific emotions they will experience in response to events that are planned in the far-off future. In these situations, we tend to construe such anticipated emotions more broadly under categories like ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ rather than identifying the specific emotions.
These errors and biases can be confusing, disorienting, and cause us to lose trust in our own ability to predict and manage our emotions.
Studies on the Accuracy of Predicted Emotion Intensity
In the same way that people are ineffective at predicting specific emotions, we are also poor at estimating the intensity of our future emotional experiences–a tendency often referred to as the “intensity bias” (Loewenstein & Schkade, 1999).
To illustrate this phenomenon, Woodzicka and LaFrance (2001) found that while most women could accurately predict the emotions they would feel when asked a sexually inappropriate question by a job interviewer, their predictions regarding these emotions’ intensity were inaccurate. More specifically, the women predicted they would primarily feel anger, followed by fear, but fear was the more intensely felt emotion in reality.
To draw on more findings, Buehler and McFarland (2001) found that university students who anticipated they would feel positive upon learning their final grade for a course overestimated the intensity with which it would make them feel positive. These scholars replicated the result when asking students to predict the intensity with which they would feel positive about their future experience of Christmas Day.
In this second study, the authors found that students who exhibited a narrower temporal focus were more likely to make these inaccurate predictions. More specifically, those who reported focusing exclusively on the upcoming holiday while neglecting to consider experiences of past holidays when making their forecasts were more likely to overestimate the intensity of their positive future emotions.
Once again, this result points to the importance of time horizons (and the attention we pay to them) as factors that may impact affective forecasting accuracy.
Studies on the Accuracy of Predicted Emotion Duration
Studies show that people tend to overestimate the duration for which they will experience anticipated emotions. This bias, termed the “durability bias” (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatly, 1998), has been shown to apply to the forecasting of both positive and negative emotions.
In one study, Ayton, Pott, and Elwakili (2007) found that those who failed their driving tests overestimated the duration of their disappointment. Interestingly, test-takers who had failed their test previously were just as poor at predicting the duration of their disappointment as those who were failing for the first time. This finding suggests that emotions may be one area where past experience does not always accurately inform expectations.
Interestingly, research has shown that people are prone to both overestimate the intensity of forecasted emotions and the duration of felt emotions. That is, we tend to exhibit both the intensity and durability biases at the same time.
To facilitate discussion of these two biases in combination, Wilson and colleagues (2000) coined the term “impact bias” in a study of college sports fans. In the study, fans were shown to overestimate not only how happy they would be after their favorite team won the game, but also how long the feelings of happiness would last.
The research is clear. We’re pretty ineffective at predicting our future emotions. But the question remains: Why is this the case?
Drivers of Affective Forecasting Errors
There are several reasons why we may find ourselves making seemingly basic errors when it comes to affective forecasting (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). These may drive us to exhibit one or more of the abovementioned biases.
The following table presents a succinct summary of affective forecasting errors, based on conceptualizations by Wilson and Gilbert (2003), and outlines the forms of bias they may lead to.
Take a look and see whether you can think of a time when you have committed one of the following forecasting errors:
|Source of Error: Construal|
|Description||A person imagines an event playing out in one way, but it plays out very differently in reality.|
|Example||An expectant mother imagines the smooth, peaceful delivery of her baby and instead has to endure a painful C-section.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||All (valence, specific emotions, intensity, and duration)|
|Source of Error: Framing Effects|
|Description||A person focuses on narrow attributes of a future event to the exclusion of others that may be equally (or more) important determinants of affective reactions.|
|Example||College students forecast their happiness in a year’s time if they lived in various dormitories. The students focus narrowly on the houses’ physical features and locations when making their predictions, rather than social factors such as relationships with roommates. (Dunn, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2003).|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Impact bias (intensity and duration) when focusing on the wrong attributes of an event. But if narrowly focused on the right attributes, theoretically, the accuracy of predictions could be strengthened.|
|Source of Error: Poor Recall|
|Description||A person draws upon inaccurate memories of a past event and uses emotional reactions to these faulty memories to forecast future emotional reactions to a similar event.|
|Example||A woman thinks back on events that occurred during a vacation in Paris. She misremembers details of the trip, feels positive about these false memories, and assumes her upcoming trip will result in similar emotions.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Specific emotions, intensity, and duration.|
|Source of Error: Idiosyncratic Theories|
|Description||A person draws on inaccurate theories about how an event will make them feel, often stemming from culture and past experiences.|
|Example||People predict they will be in a poor mood the next day after getting a bad night’s sleep based on widely held beliefs and past experience (Wilson, Laser & Stone, 1982), but this isn’t necessarily true.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Specific emotions, intensity, and duration.|
|Source of Error: Unique Influences during the Forecast|
|Description||A person’s estimates of future affective states are biased by factors in the present, such as current mood or resources.|
|Example||A girl suffering from a cold thinks about a party next month. Because she feels ill, she forecasts having a mediocre time at the party without realizing her prediction is biased by her current low mood.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Valence, intensity, and duration.|
|Source of Error: Expectation Effects|
|Description||A person’s affective forecast changes their emotional experience of the event when it occurs.|
|Example||A boy watches a movie, expecting it to be one of the best he’s ever seen. He ends up disappointed (and liking the movie less) because it did not meet his expectations.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Particularly valence (as it relates to ‘liking’).|
|Source of Error: Intrapersonal Empathy Gaps|
|Description||A person fails to consider influences on their emotional or motivational state in the future that are not present when forecasting.|
|Example||A person fails to take tissues to a funeral as they left home while still thinking about work, and not considering the emotional impact of the ceremony.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Intensity.|
|Source of Error: Focalism|
|Description||A person focuses too narrowly on a future focal event, overestimating its impact on their emotions and underestimating the impact of other concurrent events.|
|Example||A sports supporter forecasts happiness for several days if a favorite team wins an upcoming football match but fails to consider how other events such as work and career responsibilities may affect emotions.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Impact bias (intensity and duration).|
|Source of Error: Adaptation and Sense-making Processes|
|Description||A person fails to anticipate how the impact of emotional events will fade over time (also known as emotional evanescence).|
|Example||After much hard work, an academic receives tenure at their university and forecasts this will ensure extreme happiness for years to come. Instead, adaptation to a more baseline emotional state happens quicker than anticipated.|
|Target(s) of Error/Nature of Bias||Impact bias (intensity and duration).|
Any of these sources of error can cause us to make affective forecasting errors and throw us off our prediction game.
Sometimes, these may be small errors, such as expecting to feel angry when catching your child in a lie but finding yourself feeling more disappointed. Other times, the gap between our affective forecasts and experience of emotions can be quite disturbing, such as if you expect to feel happy on your wedding day but instead find yourself feeling dread and anxiety as you step up to the altar.
The last source of error pertaining to sense-making processes is especially powerful. We tend not to think about how much we alter or adjust our thoughts and feelings in response to significant events, but we do it all the time, both consciously and unconsciously.
We frequently feel joy in response to a major happy event but gradually internalize our new normal and, eventually, our intense joy fades.
Likewise, we adapt to the pain of life’s tragedies, such as losing a loved one. Wilson and Gilbert (2003) refer to this largely unconscious adaptation process as a psychological immune system.
Without this system, everything painful that happened would continue to impact us emotionally to the same degree as when it initially occurred, and, as more negative events took place, our suffering would grow more intense, harming our wellbeing.
Instead, most of us will mentally transform our interpretation of difficult events to help minimize their emotional impact, enabling us to move on with our lives and continue to function.
How Affective Forecasting Impacts Happiness
It’s easy to see how affective forecasting impacts our happiness.
A good portion of happiness comes from anticipating positive future events and managing our expectations about the inevitable negative future events.
As a consequence of committing affective forecasting errors, people will often over- and underestimate how happy they will be in response to certain events. When a person overestimates how happy they will be, they tend to impact their own happiness negatively. On the other hand, when a person underestimates their future happiness, they are likely to experience a ‘surplus’ of happiness
Another challenge to achieving sustained happiness is our tendency to adapt to a baseline level of happiness following positive life events (Kurtz, 2016). This observed tendency for people to quickly return to stable levels of happiness is sometimes referred to as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill.
Despite this common human tendency, we can use a range of strategies to hold on to moments of joy, deriving longer-lasting happiness from them. In positive psychology, this is referred to as ‘savoring,’ defined as the process by which people “… attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in their lives” (Bryant & Veroff, 2007).
Savoring strategies include recounting the experience with others, displaying positive affect (e.g., laughing), taking time to feel gratitude, feeling pride in oneself for achievements, building memories such as intentionally trying to remember positive experiences, and sharpening sensory perceptions (i.e., paying attention mindfully during physically pleasant moments; Bryant, Chadwick, & Kluwe, 2011).
Additionally, we can help ourselves to experience greater happiness by maintaining realistic expectations. By learning to enjoy the good things as they come and not expecting any event to make your life radically better or easier you will avoid the dangers of forecasting biases, helping you to build and maintain happiness.
Affective Forecasting and Decision-Making
Remember earlier when we noted some of the ways in which we might employ affective forecasting in our day-to-day lives?
Let’s take those scenarios a step further. For each one, we’ll consider how the emotional forecasts may affect decision-making and subsequent behavior:
- Because you are looking forward to your upcoming vacation, you decide to book another vacation even further in the future preemptively. This is something you probably would not do if you weren’t actively looking forward to the trip.
- You cancel your dentist appointment to avoid the pain, fear, and unease you are anticipating. Consequently, your teeth and mouth health worsen, resulting in an even more painful appointment in the future.
- Anticipating your morning coffee has you so excited that you decide to stop at a coffee shop on the way to work.
- Acknowledging your nerves about your upcoming presentation, you practice your delivery skills to help settle your nerves. Consequently, you are commended by your boss for the fantastic presentation.
- Your impatience and excitement to meet your baby encourage you to plan and strategize in the lead-up to the birth, making you feel prepared and soothing your worries before your baby is born.
- You are looking forward to your coffee date so much that you decide to get your friend a small but thoughtful gift, which delights your friend and rekindles a fulfilling friendship.
- You worry so much about what your old friend will think of you that you decide to cancel the meetup at the last minute, effectively putting an end to your old friendship.
- Your expectation about how you will feel following your football team’s victory prompt you to plan an after-party or celebration drinks.
These scenarios involve you making decisions about your behavior based on your expectations about the relevant future event. Like most decisions in life, some of them lead to good outcomes and some to bad outcomes.
The decisions that lead to bad outcomes are often the result of flawed decision-making, which can happen in response to one or more of the above forecasting biases. Therefore it is important to exercise caution when making decisions based on our expectations of future emotions.
Perhaps there is no domain in which it is more important to be cognizant of our decision-making limitations than when deciding on serious matters related to our health. According to researchers Halpern and Arnold (2008), people making health-related decisions are particularly vulnerable to the following sources of forecasting error.
Patients tend to focus heavily on what will change as a result of a medical procedure such as a reduction in mobility, becoming saddened by it and ignoring the many aspects of their life that will stay the same.
- Immune of psychological immunity:
Patients tend to underestimate the extent to which their coping mechanisms will protect them from enduring emotional suffering, such as a sense of humor and the ability to intellectualize in the face of a bad situation.
- Failure to predict adaptation:
Patients tend to underestimate or be unaware of the human tendency to adapt and return to baseline levels of happiness following challenging events (e.g., medical procedures with a long recovery time).
Therefore, if any major health decisions have to be made soon, be sure to keep these three common causes of erroneous affective forecasting in mind.
Affective Forecasting and Social Interaction
We tend to have set ideas about how we will feel when spending time with specific people in our lives.
Spending time with those we love, those who inspire us, and those we admire is likely to result in positive emotions, while spending time with those who drain or disappoint us can result in negative emotions.
In these situations, our prior experiences spending time with others will feed into our affective forecasts. Indeed, it has been shown that people with social anxiety who have had bad social experiences in the past often draw on negative experiences when forecasting future emotions in social situations, potentially exacerbating the intensity of their condition (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003).
However, it should be noted that we also anticipate our emotions in the lead-up to interacting with people we don’t know and in unfamiliar social situations. One study by Mallett, Wilson, and Gilbert (2008) found that when students were told they would be interacting with students outside their racial or ethnic group, they tended to rate their emotional reaction to the future event much more negatively than their experience actually was.
This finding indicates that affective forecasting in social situations can be heavily influenced by the human tendency to focus on differences instead of similarities.
There are several great videos, talks, lectures, and audiovisual explanations of affective forecasting if you’re interested in learning more. Here are five of our favorites, which each provide insight into the topic of affective forecasting from slightly different perspectives.
The psychology of your future self – Dan Gilbert (TED Talk)
The psychology of happiness – Daniel Gilbert
Affective Forecasting: The drug of choice – The 3T Path
Affective Forecasting in an orangutan – Primatforskning
Our Smile Factor: The freedom of human thoughts and its responsibilities – Dan Gilbert and RHMooney3
A Take-Home Message
Now that you understand affective forecasting, take a moment to predict how you will feel in response to an event later in your week.
Think about the specific emotions you expect to feel and consider whether there may be any factors in the environment or your perception of the event that could hamper the accuracy of your predictions.
Alternatively, you may want to look back on times when you have felt disappointed or unexpectedly happy in response to events and reflect on why there was a gap between your experience and expectations.
By tuning into any gaps in your affective forecasts and subsequent emotions in this way, you can remain vigilant in avoiding your tendencies toward biased predictions, empowering you to feel happier for longer.
We hope you find success in putting these principles into practice. And when in doubt, think about what you can do to manage your expectations and be prepared.
It’s as the old saying goes:
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst!
- Ayton, P., Pott, A., & Elwakili, N. (2007). Affective forecasting: Why can’t people predict their emotions? Thinking & Reasoning, 13(1), 62-80.
- Bryant, F. B., Chadwick, E. D., & Kluwe, K. (2011). Understanding the processes that regulate positive emotional experience: Unsolved problems and future directions for theory and research on savoring. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(1).
- Bryant, F. B., & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Davis, T., Love, B. C., & Maddox, W. T. (2009). Anticipatory emotions in decision tasks: Covert markers of value or attentional processes? Cognition, 112(1), 195-200.
- Dunn, E. W., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Location, location, location: The misprediction of satisfaction in housing lotteries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(11), 1421-1432.
- Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.
- Halpern, J., & Arnold, R. M. (2008). Affective forecasting: An unrecognized challenge in making serious health decisions. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 23, 1708-1712. doi:10.1007/s11606-008-0719-5
- Kahneman, D., & Snell, J. (1992). Predicting a changing taste: Do people know what they will like? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 5(3), 187-200.
- Kurtz, J. L. (2016). Affective forecasting: Teaching a useful, accessible, and humbling area of research. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 80-85. doi:10.1177/0098628315620952
- Liberman, N., Sagristano, M., & Trope, Y. (2002). The effect of temporal distance on level of mental construal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 523-534.
- Loewenstein, G., & Schkade, D. (1999). Wouldn’t it be nice? Predicting future feelings. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 85-105). New York, NY: Russell Sage.
- Mallett, R. K., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). Expect the unexpected: Failure to anticipate similarities when predicting the quality of an intergroup interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 265-277.
- Polyportis, A., Kokkinaki, F., Horváth, C., & Christopoulos, G. (2020). Incidental emotions and hedonic forecasting: The role of (un)certainty. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.
- Wenze, S. J., Gunthert, K. C., & German, R. E. (2012). Biases in affective forecasting and recall in individuals with depression and anxiety symptoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(7), 895-906.
- Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.
- Wilson, T. D., Laser, P. S., & Stone, J. I. (1982). Judging the predictors of one’s own mood: Accuracy and the use of shared theories. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(6), 537-556.
- Wilson, T. D., Wheatley, T. P., Kurtz, J., Dunn, E., & Gilbert, D. T. (2002). Ready to fire: Preemptive rationalization versus rapid reconstrual after positive and negative outcomes. Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.
- Wilson, T. D., Wheatley, T. P., Meyers, J. M., Gilbert, D. T., & Axsom, D. (2000). Focalism: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 821-836.
- Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30.