Friday, 24 August 2007

We're useless at predicting how what happens will affect us emotionally

When making decisions, a key factor we weigh up is how we think the outcome of our decisions will make us feel emotionally – what psychologists call postdecisional affect. The trouble is, we're useless at predicting how we'll feel.

Nick Sevdalis and Nigel Harvey gave 47 participants £10 each to split as they chose with an unseen stranger in another room. If the stranger rejected the amount they were offered as too mean, then both the participant and stranger would go away empty handed. The participants were asked how much regret and disappointment they expected to experience if their offer was rejected.

In fact, the task was fixed - there were no strangers, and every participant was told that their offer had been rejected. Immediately after receiving the rejection, the participants were asked to report how much regret and disappointment they actually felt. Participants who had made reasonably high offers experienced significantly less regret than they thought they would, and on average, all participants experienced less disappointment than they expected.

In a second experiment, 27 students were asked to predict the grade they would receive for a real piece of coursework and to say how much regret and rejoicing they would experience if their actual mark was higher or lower than they expected. After receiving their grade, they reported how the news actually made them feel.

Overall, the students underestimated the mark they received, but they overestimated how delighted this better-than-expected result made them feel. Together with the first experiment, the findings suggest we overestimate how despondent bad outcomes will make us feel, and we overestimate how pleased good outcomes will make us feel.

The researchers suggested that to improve our decision-making, we should discount how we think different outcomes will make us feel. “Anticipated regret is certainly a powerful decision cue,” they said. “Whether it is an effective one remains to be empirically demonstrated.”

Sevdalis, N. & Harvey, N. (2007). Biased forecasting of postdecisional affect. Psychological Science, 18, 678-681.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related research by Dan Gilbert of Stumbling on Happiness fame (free, full-text pdf).


mm said...

I wonder how the results would differ if you primed the subject with questions about other important things in their life. Perhaps the over-estimates are a function of the subject only considering the grade (or money award) without thinking about all the other things going in in a person's life.

If subjects were asked a few questions about loosing/getting a job/sexual partner/friend, they might reduce their predicted happiness outcome, knowing its comparative lack of importance.

Unknown said...

I always thought that people made decisions based on how they feel at the moment, not how they anticipate feeling. You say chocolate ice cream will make me feel better when I get it, but what that means is chocolate ice cream would make you feel better right now.

Anonymous said...

You use terms like 'gutted' and 'chuffed', which I assume are brit-slang for something, but I know not what...

-Just an American

Unknown said...

Sorry anonymous - you're right, I came over all chavvy (sorry, more Brit slang...) the day I wrote that piece. I've now substituted the slang for some more formal English. Hope that helps.

Keep it plastic

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