As a follow up to my post on decisions and “spreading of alternatives” , I thought I’d come back and say a bit more about decisions, and the feelings we have before and after them.
We often make decisions based on how we think we will feel as a result. For example, imagine that I am deciding whether to work for a few more hours, or go out for a bike ride instead. I imagine the first option will make me feel more accomplished and satisfied, but I might also regret not taking advantage of the nice weather (a sin to be strongly avoided here in Chicago. The second option should be fun, but I might feel guilty for procrastinating. These predicted feelings (guilt, regret, etc.) inform my decision of what to do. In psychology lingo, these affective forecasts help guide decisions.
Unfortunately, our affective forecasts are not quite as accurate as weather forecasts. Research shows that we are pretty good at predicting how we would feel in certain situations (happy or sad), but not how intensely, or for how long. We overestimate how happy having a new job will make us -- but overestimate, too, how devastating it would be to lose that job. The same principle holds true for minor day-to-day decisions, like the one described above.
Is there any way to improve predictions about future feelings? Hearing from someone who has already been through it (whatever it is) may improve predictions dramatically. In one study , researchers set women up on five-minute “speed dates” with guys. Each woman was asked to predict how much she would enjoy the date. To help with their predictions, each woman was either given: A) a detailed profile about the guy’s interests, hometown, etc. – or B) another woman’s report of how much she enjoyed meeting the guy. After the date, each woman rated how enjoyable the date in fact was, so the researchers could see how accurate her prediction was. As it turns out, the women’s predictions were more accurate when they read another woman’s report, than when they got the detailed profiles of the guy (almost 50% more accurate).
If this seems implausible, that’s not surprising -- it seemed implausible to the participants too. Most of the participants (wrongly) believed the detailed information would help them make more accurate predictions than would the other woman’s report. We don’t expect others’ experiences to be so illuminating for our own future situations. After all, we have distinct personalities, interests and backgrounds – so we can’t know for certain that we’ll feel the same way that someone else did. Nevertheless, peoples’ emotional reactions to situations are similar enough (sunny weather, sympathetic listeners, and unexpected days off tend to shift everyone’s mood in approximately the same direction), that others’ experiences can actually provide pretty valuable information. Unfortunately, we have a blind spot about this, and tend not to seek out others’ viewpoints as often as we should. New platforms, like Sooth, that allow us to get others’ fresh perspectives, should help make our “affective forecasts” more accurate – which can help us make better-informed decisions.