Overestimating the impact of future events

If I asked you to predict how you’d react emotionally to a given situation – say your train to work was cancelled, or if your football team were to win next Saturday – then research suggests you would overestimate its emotional effect on you. That’s because in using our past experiences as a guide to how we’ll feel in future situations, it is our most extreme experiences that most readily come to mind, thus biasing our future expectations.

Carey Morewedge and colleagues approached commuters at a railway station. They asked some to recall their worst experience of missing a train, and to rate how they’d felt at the time. They asked other passengers to recall any experience they’d had of missing a train and to rate how they felt. Morewedge’s team found those passengers asked to recall any experience, remembered an episode they rated just as unpleasant as those specifically asked to recall their worst experience (other passengers asked to recall a mixture of experiences were able to do so). This pattern was replicated with sports fans approached at a football game and a baseball game: those asked to recall any occasion their team won, remembered wins that were just as amazing and enjoyable as those asked to recall the best win ever.

"This finding could help people anticipate events more realistically..."

However, when these same participants were next asked to imagine how they’d feel if they were to miss a train now, or if their team were to win that day, it was only those participants asked to recall any previous experience who then made extreme predictions for how bad or good they’d feel (the usual bias shown by previous research). In contrast, the participants asked to deliberately recall their worst or best previous experience had more modest expectations. Their awareness that they had recalled an extreme example seemed to help them make more moderate forecasts for the future.

This finding could help people anticipate events more realistically. The authors pointed to the example of someone dreading a visit to the dentist because of a previous bad experience. In a case like that, “When biased recollection is unavoidable”, the authors advised, “it may make sense to explicitly promote it, thereby alerting people to the unrepresentativeness of the events they are remembering”.

Morewedge, C.K., Gilbert, D.T. & Wilson, T.D. (2005). The least likely of times. How remembering the past biases forecasts of the future. Psychological Science, 16, 626-630.
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