What is Affective Forecasting? Definition + Daniel Gilbert’s Work

What is Affective Forecasting? Definition + Daniel Gilbert's Work

The term “affective forecasting” may be a bit off-putting.

After all, what in the world can “affective forecasting” mean? Doesn’t forecasting have something to do with the weather? Or perhaps statistical modeling? Predicting sales for next quarter?

All of these activities require some form of forecasting; the main difference is simply in what you are trying to predict.

Although the term is composed of words we don’t generally use in our daily lives, researchers have made it clear that this is exactly what we do on a very regular basis.

We engage in affective forecasting to help us manage our expectations, encourage us to look forward to the good things, and push us to “plan for the worst,” even while anticipating the best scenario.

 

What is Affective Forecasting? (Meaning + Concept)

According to Psychology Today’s definition:

“Affective forecasting is predicting how you will feel in the future. As it turns out, we’re terrible at it. We’re not good judges of what will make us happy, and we have trouble seeing through the filter of the now. Our feelings in the present blind us to how we’ll make decisions in the future, when we might be feeling very differently”.

This definition lays it out in plain English, but to simplify it further, you can think of affective forecasting as having some idea about how a future event, big or small, will make you feel.

 

A Brief History of Affective and Hedonic Forecasting

This concept was first defined and investigated by researchers Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert in the 1990s. Their interest was provoked by the observation that when we get what we want, we are not always as happy as we thought we would be.

The idea of wanting something inherently involves affective forecasting—we are predicting that we will be happy (or fulfilled, or relieved, or feeling any other positive emotion) when we get what we want. This gets at the crux of affective forecasting, and highlights how it differs from other predictions we make: we are making predictions and building expectations about our feelings.

This is not the same as trying to predict who will win the World Series or whether the stock market is about to crash, nor is it the same as predicting how you will behave; it concerns a much murkier and arguably more complex set of phenomena.

According to the experts, research on this topic mainly began as explorations of people’s forecasting rather than coupling those observations with the same people’s actual responses. This provided valuable information about how we forecast and predict and think about our future, but little in the way of evidence for or against the accuracy of our forecasting. In recent years, scholars have begun to investigate the emotional responses and measure the accuracy of forecasting.

 

The Work of Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson

Although the literature was already peppered with various research on decision-making and predicting, Gilbert and Wilson paved the way for this new venture into previously unexplored territory, and they continued to lead the way as research turned to emotional responses and accuracy of forecasting.

Gilbert and Wilson not only provided a working definition of affective forecasting, they also described its components and conducted many of the early studies on the subject (more on that later). Their work laid the foundations for much of our understanding about how we think about and plan for the future, and how we make important decisions in our lives.

 

The Psychology of Affective Forecasting Theory

The work that has been done by Gilbert, Wilson, and other researchers in this area has shed light on the complex and fascinating way that we predict our future feelings, how we act on those predictions, and how often those predictions are correct.

However, before diving too deep, we need to cover the foundations of affective forecasting: the four components.

 

The Types and Components of Affective Forecasting

There are four components to affective forecasting:

  1. Valence (whether the emotion will be positive or negative)
  2. Specific emotion(s) experienced
  3. Intensity of the emotion(s)
  4. Duration of the emotion(s) (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003)

In other words, when we attempt to predict our future emotions, we generally consider whether they will be positive or negative, what specific emotion or emotions we will feel, how intensely we will feel them, and how long they will last.

Studies on the four components have made an interesting discovery: the accuracy with which we predict each of these four aspects varies significantly.

 

Research and Studies

Early work by Wilson, Gilbert, and colleagues (2002) found that participants in a simulated dating game generally predicted their future emotions correctly (better mood if they won, worse mood if they lost).

Studies on the accuracy of forecasting specific emotions found that again, people were generally good at predicting which emotions they would feel. For example, the study noted above found that participants were pretty accurate in predicting specific emotions that would result from winning or losing the game; however, research from Liberman, Sagristano, and Trope (2002) suggests that we tend to have narrow, simplistic ideas about how we will feel and what emotions we will experience due to a certain future event, especially if it is far into the future.

Similar to Liberman et al. (2002), Woodzicka and LaFrance found that most women predicted that they would feel primarily angry and potentially a little scared if a job interviewer asked them sexually harassing questions; however, the results showed that their predominant emotion was fear. Only a few of the women reported anger! This finding shows that participants correctly predicted the emotions they would feel, to a certain extent, but they usually failed to accurately predict which emotion would be most intense.

Speaking of intensity, that study by Woodzicka and LaFrance was not a one-off finding; we are generally not quite as good at predicting the intensity of our future emotions. Early research by Gilbert and colleagues showed that we tend to overestimate the duration of our future emotional reactions, an effect which was initially called “durability bias” (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatly, 1998).

 

Impact Bias in Affective Forecasting

Although durability errors are perhaps the most common in affective forecasting, we can make errors in predicting each of the four components. Thus, the term “durability bias” was not sufficient to describe the range of errors that we make in predicting the emotional impact of future events.

A study by Wilson and colleagues (2000) confirmed the inadequacy of the term by producing findings that college sports fan often overestimated how happy they would be after their favorite team won the game, were wrong about how long the feeling would last, or both. This phenomenon of overpredicting the intensity and/or duration of a future emotion is clearly more than an error in durability predictions, and so the effect was given a new, more comprehensive name: impact bias. This bias causes us to mistakenly over-predict (or sometimes under-predict) the enduring impact that future events will have on our emotions.

 

Errors & Biases – Affective Forecasting Errors

In addition to the impact bias, we sometimes make errors in predicting which specific emotions we will feel and even whether we will feel generally happy or generally sad or upset about a future event. These errors and biases can be confusing, disorienting, and cause us to lose some trust in our own ability to predict and manage our emotions.

According to Wilson and Gilbert (2003), the source of these errors generally falls into one of these categories:

  1. Misconstrual of an event (imagining an event that, in reality, occurs quite differently)
  2. Framing effects (biases in perspective that shape our feelings)
  3. Recalling a similar event in the past and expecting to have a similar reaction
  4. The effects of current emotions on future predictions (also known as mental contamination)
  5. Expectation effects (expecting one thing and experiencing another can have a profound impact)
  6. Failure to anticipate future emotional or motivational states (both relevant and irrelevant to the future event)
  7. Sense-making processes (altering the way we feel about events to cope or manage the effects)

 

Any of these issues can throw us off our prediction game and cause us to make errors—often small ones (like expecting to feel angry when catching your child in a lie, but actually feeling more disappointed when it happens), but sometimes significant ones (like expecting to feel happy on your wedding day but instead feeling dread and anxiety over your decision).

The last category is an especially powerful one; we tend not to think about how much we alter or adjust our thoughts and feelings to cope, but we do it all the time, both consciously and unconsciously. We frequently feel elation at a significant happy event, but we gradually internalize our new normal and eventually, our intense joy fades (more on that later).

 

8 Examples of Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting is something we do all the time throughout our daily lives. We do it without even noticing!

As a thought experiment, designate a day to simply notice all the times you predict your feelings about a future event. Note each time it happens, and jot down a few notes about it.

It might be something like:

  1. Anticipating experiencing the fun and relaxation of an upcoming vacation
  2. Dreading a visit to the dentist and expecting to feel fear and discomfort
  3. Looking forward to your morning coffee and the jolt it will give you
  4. Feeling nervous about an interview or a presentation at work and predicting that you will feel anxious and scared
  5. Impatiently waiting for your baby to be born and expecting to feel joy, happiness, and peace after the birth
  6. Looking forward to meeting an old friend for coffee and expecting a feeling of contentment
  7. Worrying about what your old friend will think of when you meet for coffee and expecting to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or unhappy with yourself
  8. Expecting to feel elated when your favorite team wins their upcoming game

These are just a few of the many, many ways that we predict our future emotions on a daily basis.

 

How Affective Forecasting Impacts Happiness

How Affective Forecasting Impacts Happiness

It’s easy to see how affective forecasting impacts our happiness: a good portion of it comes from anticipating positive future events and managing our expectations about the inevitable negative future events. For example, an analysis of the 2004 election between George Bush and John Kerry found that Bush supporters were predictably happy about the win and Kerry supporters experienced a dip in happiness—although not to the extent that they thought (Hoerger, Quirk, Lucas, & Carr, 2010).

When we overestimate how happy we will be after a future event, we tend to negatively impact our happiness. On the other hand, when we underestimate our future happiness, we might feel even happier with our surplus positive emotions.

However, the biggest impact affective forecasting tends to have on our happiness is through challenging us with the overestimation of happiness from significant life events. We are so good at adapting to life changes that the happiness we gain from a single event is usually long-gone after a short period of time (Kurtz, 2016).

If we recognize this and embrace the fleeting joy for what it is, we may hang on to our increased happiness longer. It’s counterintuitive, but learning to enjoy the good things as they come and not expecting any event to make your life radically better or easier is the best way to build and maintain happiness.

Although indirect, perhaps the next most significant way in which affective forecasting impacts our happiness is by influencing our decision-making.

 

Affective Forecasting and Decision-Making

Remember earlier when we noted some of the many ways in which we 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 decision-making might go down:

  • Because of your anticipation for your upcoming vacation, you decide to preemptively book another vacation even further in the future. 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 which you predict you would feel at the dentist’s office, which can backfire by setting you up for worsening teeth and mouth health.
  • Anticipating your morning coffee has you so excited for coffee that you decide to stop at a coffee shop on the way to work.
  • You practice your skills and run mock interviews to help you settle your nerves, which ends up helping you nail the interview and land the job.
  • Your impatience and excitement to meet your baby encourages you to plan and strategize for every likely twist and turn the birth experience might take, 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.
  • On the other hand, you could worry so much about what your friend will think of you that you decide to cancel the meetup last-minute, upsetting your friend and effectively putting an end to your old friendship.
  • Your expectation to feel ecstatic when your team wins influences your decisions about what to do after the game, like go out for celebratory drinks or dinner with friends.

 

All of these scenarios involve you making decisions about your behavior based on your expectations about the relevant future event. Like most decision points in life, some of them lead to good outcomes and some lead to bad outcomes.

The decisions that lead to bad outcomes are often the result of flawed decision-making, which can happen when any (or all) of the errors and biases we covered earlier crop up. We should exercise caution when making decisions based on our expectations of future emotions, as we are vulnerable to a number of biased perspectives and misjudgments.

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), there are three specific mechanisms that often cause problems in health-related decision-making:

  1. Focalism: the focus on what will change rather than on what will stay the same.
  2. Immune neglect: the failure to understand how we can use our own coping skills to address any unhappiness.
  3. Failure to predict adaptation: the failure to envision potential changes in our values and our general ability to adapt after a significant event.

If you’re making any big health decisions soon, be sure to keep these three problems in mind!

 

Affective Forecasting and Social Interaction

As suggested by our list of affective forecasting scenarios above, there are many social situations in which affective forecasting may come into play. 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 are inspiring and uplifting, and those we admire is likely to result in positive emotions, while spending time with those who drain or disappoint us can influence us towards more negative emotions.

However, affective forecasting can also influence our expectations of future emotions when contemplating interacting with people we don’t know. A 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 indicates that affective forecasting for social situations can be heavily influenced by the human tendency to focus on differences instead of similarities—even when there are far more similarities than differences.

It should also be mentioned here that much of what we forecast is based on prior experience. This is one mechanism which, when used by those with social anxiety who have had bad social experiences in the past, may cause us to flounder or even develop more intense social anxiety (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003).

 

Affective Forecasting and the Big Five

And speaking of social anxiety and neuroticism, this leads into the next interesting cross-section of study on affective forecasting: personality.

As you can imagine, one’s personality has a significant effect on how he or she engages in affective forecasting and how accurate their predictions are.

A recent article by Hoerger, Chapman, and Duberstein (2016) suggested that people with high neuroticism and high introversion were generally right about the predictions for negative emotions they made, while extroverted and less neurotic people tend to accurately predict the positive emotions they will feel.

More research is needed on how personality influences affective forecasting before we can say anything with more certainty, but it is exciting to follow an area of the literature so ripe for new ideas and innovative studies.

 

Affective Forecasting and Self-Regulation

Finally, our last affective forecasting crossover topic is self-regulation.

Affective forecasting actually encourages a healthy boost in self-regulation. This is at least somewhat intuitive: when we have a good idea of how we will feel in the future, we can prepare ourselves for it and work on meeting the challenge head-on (for negative emotions) or fully embracing the emotion (for positive emotions).

This is especially true for affective forecasting in which the predicted emotion is a positive one. At the other end of the spectrum, anticipating negative emotions may make it more difficult to self-regulate, resulting in self-defeating behaviors and even more distance from a potential solution (Zhang, 2012).

However, anticipating negative emotions and/or predicting a different level of intensity can also push you to work harder to avoid any unnecessary, negative potential outcomes. As with many traits and characteristics in life, one’s perspective can shape everything regarding affective forecasting and self-regulation.

 

Recommended Viewing

There are several great videos, talks, lectures, and audiovisual explanations of affective forecasting if you’re interested in learning more. Check out these five videos to get a better handle on this topic:

  • The Psychology of Your Future Self by Dan Gilbert (TED Talk)

 

  • The Psychology of Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

 

  • Affective Forecasting: The Drug of Choice by The 3T Path

 

  • Affective Forecasting in an Orangutan by Primatforskning

 

  • Our Smile Factor: The Freedom of Human Thoughts and Its Responsibilities by Dan Gilbert and RHMooney3.

 
Each of these videos provides an excellent peek into the world of affective forecasting, each from a slightly different perspective. If you have the time, I recommend watching them all!

 

A Take Home Message

If you learned just one thing in this article, I hope it’s this: our brain is running a lot of complex processes and it goes about a mile a minute, but paying attention to our tactics when using affective forecasting can help us build and maintain a healthy happiness baseline and create and sustain a good balance in our lives.

Although there are certainly some benefits to making predictions about how you will feel after a future event, the list of potential pitfalls is also quite lengthy. It pays to be vigilant about your own known biases and vulnerabilities!

What do you think about affective forecasting? Do you find yourself expecting more positive emotions or more negative emotions, in general? Do your expectations usually come true? When they don’t come true, how and why do they differ? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

Thanks for reading, and best of luck in getting your forecasting “numbers” up!

  • 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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.75.3.617
  • 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
  • Hoerger, M., Chapman, B., & Duberstein, P. (2016). Realistic affective forecasting: The role of personality. Cognitive Emotion, 30, 1304-1316. doi:10.1080/02699931.2015.1061481
  • Hoerger, M., Quirk, S. W., Lucas, R. E., & Carr, T. H. (2010). Cognitive determinants of affective forecasting errors. Judgment and Decision Making, 5, 365-373. PMID:21912580
  • 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.
  • 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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.94.2.94.2.265
  • Psychology Today. “Affective forecasting.” Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/affective-forecasting
  • Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.
  • 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. doi:0.1037/0022-3514.78.5.821
  • Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00199
  • Zhang, M. (2012). Keep an eye on future feelings: Interpersonal affective forecasting and self-regulation. [Dissertaion]. Retrieved from https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=3549&context=etd

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman, MSc., is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.

Comments

  1. Norton activate

    Thanks for sharing. It is really amazing.

    Reply
  2. Mal

    Reading Csikszentmihalyi I thought having more flow in my life would make me happier, and chess was one of his first examples of “experiences … rewarding in themselves… [that] provide little worlds of their own that are enjoyable.” So my “affective forecast” was that playing on chess.com would make me happier. Instead I ended up with massive stress, frustration, and an internet addiction… in sum, much less happier. It may be that chess playing just isn’t for me, even though I have a physics degree and used to enjoy it, and beat all my friends at it, as a kid. I was not that bad on chess.com as an “old beginner” making it to the top 20% of players on the site within weeks, and playing against people where my skills and challenge were perfectly balanced, as “flow theory” suggests is “ideal”. But I still felt extremely stressed out and very frustrated over the game. I’ve now stopped playing “cold turkey” and spending the time saved reading up on more positive psychology to see if there’s anything out there that actually works to improve happiness. Given that the “father of PP” set me on the wrong path of chess, this shows that I at least have some hope and optimism! Has anyone out there found an activity that they forecast would greatly increase their long term happiness, and it actually has?

    Reply
  3. Jessie van den Heuvel

    This article has been updated on September 1, 2018. Enjoy!

    Reply
  4. Joanna

    We are caught in this constant pursuit of happiness. Chasing after “the next big thing” we think will make us happy. New car, new TV, new house or even a new partner… And although, as illustrated nicely in this article, most of the time we are right in terms of what will make us happy, we definitely overestimate the impact that particular event will have on our lives.
    We believe that the true happiness lies in embracing all emotions. There are there for a reason and enable us to fully engage with life.
    We just need to learn how to become friends with them.

    Reply
    • Nhu Tran

      Hi Joanna,
      I totally agree with you. Most of the time we are right in terms of what makes us happy because we know our likes and dislikes. At the same time, our expectations are overestimated. In stead of chasing what we think will bring us happiness, I think that we should enjoy the present and appreciate what we have. I think you are right about that we need to learn how to become friends with all emotions. You have pointed out an excellent point!

      Reply

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