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Affective forecasting

Author: Dr Simon Moss


To reach suitable decisions and to improve their lives, individuals must be able to predict the emotions they are likely to experience if they choose a specific course of action. If individuals need to decide whether they should pursue a vocation in engineering or accounting, for example, they must attempt to foresee which of these career paths is likely to foster enjoyment, satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, and enthusiasm.

Regrettably, individuals do not forecast the emotions they will feel in the future accurately. They will, for example, generally overestimate the negative emotions they will need to endure in the aftermath of aversive or undesirable events. In addition, they will generally overestimate the positive emotions they will experience in response to favorable or fortuitous events (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003).

Since the discovery of these common errors, many other inaccuracies in affective forecasting have been uncovered. Individuals, for instance, tend to overestimate the sense of satisfaction they will enjoy if they avenge someone who has behaved offensively or inappropriately (Carlsmith, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). Furthermore, individuals sometimes underestimate the emotional benefits of various mental exercises, such as imagining their life devoid of various positive events they have experienced recently (Koo, Algoe, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008).

Similarly, they underestimate the effect of uncertainty on the future emotions. That is, when individuals feel a sense of uncertainty, any emotions they experience tend to be prolonged-sometimes contrary to their expectations (e.g. Wilson, Centerbar, Kermer, & Gilbert, 2005).

Common biases and their causes

Impact bias

A prevailing bias, discovered in the seminal studies on affective forecasting, is the impact bias-the tendency of individuals to overestimate the impact of emotional events (for a review, see Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). When individuals imagine a future misfortune or adversity-perhaps the dissolution of a relationship, the diagnosis of a medical condition, or the loss of a job-they anticipate they will experience intense and enduring negative emotions. These negative emotions, such as anxiety, dejection, and irritation, often dissipate more rapidly than anticipated. In addition, these negative emotions feel less intense than expected.

Likewise, when individuals envisage a desirable event, such as a promotion, they predict the ensuing positive emotions might be strong and durable. Again, however, these possible emotions are not as intense or enduring as forecast.

Many variants of this impact bias have been uncovered. For example, this bias arises when individuals attempt to remember the emotions they experienced during remove events in the past rather than forecast their feelings in the future (Wilson, Meyers, & Gilbert, 2003). Indeed, biases when reflecting upon past emotional experiences can exacerbate biases when anticipating future emotional experiences (Morewedge, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2005).

This bias has also been confirmed in a variety of populations. To illustrate, patients overestimated the wellbeing and quality of life they will experience after a successful kidney transplant (Smith, Loewenstein, Jepson, Jankovich, Feldman, & Ubel, 2008).


The impact bias has been, at least partly, ascribed to the concept of focalism (see Wilson, Wheatley, Meyers, Gilbert, & Axsom, 2000). That is, when individuals imagine or envisage a pleasant or unpleasant event, they overestimate the extent to which their attention will be directed towards the repercussion of this episode. They overlook the probability that many intervening events, opportunities, or complications will distract their attention and impinge on their emotional reactions.

For example, in the aftermath of an adversity, individuals might overlook both the support they can garner from friends or family as well as their own capacity to regulate their emotions. Likewise, after an achievement or victory, individuals might overlook some of the complications that could arise-perhaps unattainable expectations in the future or doubts about the legitimacy of their success.

Several studies have corroborated this focalism empirically. To illustrate, one study demonstrates that individuals experienced less intense positive emotions that anticipated after the football team they support won and experienced less intense negative emotions after this team lost. Specifically, and consistent with the concept of focalism, individuals devoted less time to reflecting upon these sporting events than predicted.

Furthermore, in general, people overestimate the effects of receiving an apology on their subsequent mood. That is, perhaps because of the focal bias, they predict they will feel considerably better after somebody apologizes for some transgression against them. However, they do not feel the level of trust and relief they expected. This forecasting error was uncovered by De Cremer, Pillutla, and Folmer (2011).

Immune neglect

Immune neglect, according to Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, and Wheatley (1998), represents a source of focalism (see also Gilbert & Ebert, 2002;; Gilbert, Pinel, Brown, & Wilson, 2000)-and thus ultimately a cause of the impact bias. To illustrate, when individuals experience an adverse event, a sequence of defense mechanisms and other processes are activated, called the psychological immune system, all of which temper negative emotions.

In general, individuals are oblivious to the benefits of these mechanisms. If individuals were aware of these mechanisms, their utility would dissipate. For example, if individuals know they direct attention to their strengths as a form of defense, an awareness of this mechanism would counter the positive emotions that emerge.

Because individuals are oblivious to these systems of resources, they overestimate the pain and distress they adverse events might provoke. Consistent with this premise, affective forecasting errors are more pronounced for negative than positive emotions.

Immune neglect could explain the benefits of unrecognized benefits of other mental exercises and practices. Individuals, for example, underestimate the emotional benefits of engaging in social activities in which they might be evaluated (Dunn, Biesanz, Human, & Finn, 2007). That is, in these settings, the need to act socially can boost mood-but the underlying mechanisms usually transcend conscious awareness.

Asymmetric immune knowledge

According to Igou (2008), this oblivion to resources that temper negative affect should be especially pronounced when individuals forecast the emotions that someone else will experience. Individuals, although usually oblivious to their own capacity to withstand difficulties, are nevertheless aware of some coping mechanisms. That is, they can remember some of the strategies and practices they applied to alleviate negative emotions.

Individuals, however, have less access to the strategies, tactics, thoughts, and behaviors that anyone else applies to temper negative emotions. Individuals, therefore, might underestimate the capacity of anyone to cope with difficult circumstances. Consistent with this premise, forecasting errors were especially pronounced when participants were asked to anticipate the emotions that other individuals, especially strangers, would experience in adverse circumstances (Igou, 2008).

Duration bias

Many errors in affective forecasting can be ascribed to duration neglect. For example, when individuals reflect upon the extent to which an event is aversive--perhaps a monotonous movie or a painful illness--their evaluations tend to be independent of the duration of this episode. That is, whether the episode is persistent or transient does not greatly affect the extent to which this even is evaluated as aversive (see Kahneman, 1999;; 2003;; Kahneman & Frederick, 2002;; Kahneman, Frederickson, Schreiber, & Redelmeier, 1993;; Kahneman, Wakker, & Sarin, 1997;; Redelmeier & Kahneman, 1996;; Redelmeier, Katz, & Kahneman, 2003;; Varey & Kahneman, 1992). Instead, the peaks or troughs of these experiences shape these evaluations.

Nevertheless, several factors can mitigate the duration bias. The format in which information is presented, for example, can influence the magnitude of this bias. When information is presented graphically, rather than numerically, the duration bias dissipates (Liersch & McKenzie, 2008).

Other factrors can also offset the duration bias. As Keller and Bless (2009) argued, this duration bias arises because individuals focus almost inordinately on information that is related to this event. To override this tendency, some participants were instructed to identify facets of their life that would be unaffected by this event. Other participants were instructed to identify facets of their life that would be affected by this event.

If participants were asked to identify only a few facets of their life that would be unaffected by this event--and hence these possibilities were readily retrievable--they did not overestimate the duration of future emotions. If participants were asked to identify many facets of their life that would be unaffected by this event--and hence these possibilities were not readily retrievable and thus seemed remote--this benefit did not arise.

Rumination neglect

Although focalism has been substantiated in many settings, individuals sometimes demonstrate a contradictory tendency: an inclination to underestimate the extent to which an event might attract attention. One example of this inclination was illustrated by Carlsmith, Wilson, and Gilbert (2008).

In this study, participants played a computer game, which involved collaborating with other individuals who were located remotely. One of the other individuals behaved inappropriately rather than cooperatively.

Some of the participants were granted an opportunity to punish this person, by diminishing the pay this individual received for completing the study. Other participants were not granted this opportunity. Interestingly, the participants who were granted an opportunity to punish the other person was more inclined, subsequently, to ruminate over the event. Furthermore, perhaps as a consequence of this rumination, these individuals were especially likely to experience negative emotions, such as vengeful and irritated rather than pleased and satisfied.

Another set of participants were, instead, instructed to forecast their emotions-that is, to rate the degree to which they would experience various feelings if they were or were not granted an opportunity to punish this individual. These forecasts were generally misguided. Individuals anticipated they would feel more positive, rather than negative, emotions if granted an opportunity to avenge the transgression. In other words, these individuals overlooked the effect of punishment on subsequent rumination. That is, they underestimated the likelihood of rumination following a punitive action-an observation that diverges from the typical impact bias.

Interestingly, the finding that individuals anticipate that punishment of someone else will be pleasurable aligns with research that has explored the neural underpinnings to punitive actions. In particular, during the minute that precedes the dispensation of punishment, the dorsal striatum is activated (De Quervain, Fischbacher, Treyer, Schellhammer, Schnyder, Buck, & Fehr, 2004). This region is closely associated with the experience of pleasure.

Neglect of biases

Interestingly, after individuals realize they have not predicted their emotions accurately--and committed a forecasting error--their capacity to forecast emotions in the future does not tend to improve. That is, people do not seem to learn from past errors in forecasting emotions (Meyvis, Ratner, & Levav, 2010). As Meyvis, Ratner, and Levav (2010) showed, people often forget their original forecasts and, therefore, are oblivious to these forecasting errors. This principle could, at least partly, explain why affective forecasting errors are so common and intractable.

Underestimating the benefits of urban nature

As Nisbet and Zelenski (2011) showed, individuals tend to demonstrate affective forecasting errors when they predict how they will feel after walking outside. Specifically, people underestimate the benefits of walking outside rather than inside.

In one study, university students either walked inside or outside for about 17 minutes. That is, they walked either in tunnels that connect various buildings on their campus or along a canal in the city. Before this walk, some of the participants were asked to predict the extent to which they are likely to experience positive emotions after completing this stroll. After this walk, other participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they now feel positive emotions. Participants who walked outside, rather than inside, tended to underestimate the degree to which they will experience positive emotions.

Conceivably, because people are seldom exposed to nature, they may underestimate the benefits of these walks outside. That is, while inside, people cannot readily imagine the pleasant emotions, feelings, and thoughts they may experience after these walks through nature.

Alternative explanations of affective forecasting errors

Positivity bias

Affective forecasting also arises because individuals often overestimate their qualities (e.g., Newby-Clark, Ross, Buehler, Koehler, & Griffin, 2000), perceiving themselves as entirely rational, for example (Alicke, 1985). For example, Ku (2008) showed that individuals underestimated their tendency to escalate their commitment to initiatives, strategies, or decisions that were clearly unsuccessful.

Furthermore, individuals tend to anticipate they will feel sizeable regret if they continue inordinately with an unsuccessful initiative or strategy. However, this regret was less intense than anticipated (Ku, 2008). This inclination could arise because individuals assume their behavior will be rational. These also assume that deviations from such rationality will thus be distressing.

Dissimilarity bias

Affective forecasting can also arise because individuals tend to focus their attention on threats, such as dissimilarities between themselves and members of other collectives. That is, individuals tend to overestimate the negative emotions they will experience when they interact with members of another racial or social group (Mallett, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008).

This bias arises because individuals direct their attitudes towards dissimilarities between themselves and members of other groups. Consistent with this argument, this forecasting error dissipated when participants were encouraged to focus on similarities between themselves and other collectives (Mallett, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008).

Representative bias

The representative bias could, potentially, explain some inaccuracies in affective forecasting. In one study, conducted by Koo, Algoe, Wilson, and Gilbert (2008), some participants were instructed to imagine their life had some positive experience never unfolded. They were, for example, asked to envisage their life had they never met, dated, or married their spouse. In contrast, some participants were instructed to reflect upon some positive experience, such as the settings in which they met, dated, and married their spouse.

Individuals who had imagined their life devoid of some positive experience were subsequently more likely than other participants to experience gratitude, joy, hope, appreciation, security, optimism, and other pleasant feelings. That is, such reflections overcome the usual sense of inevitability and understanding of positive events, amplifying the impact of these episodes on the emotional state of individuals.

Nevertheless, another set of participants were asked to forecast the emotions they are likely to experience if instructed to imagine their life had some positive experience never unfolded or to reflect upon the antecedents to this experience. Participants anticipated they would be more likely to experience negative emotions after imagining their life had some positive event never unfolded. Their forecasting of emotions, therefore, departed from the affective experience of individuals who actually formed these images.

The representative bias can explain this forecasting error (for a description of this bias, see Kahneman & Tversky, 1972). To forecast their affect, participants could attempt to predict the frequency of negative feelings in response to images about life devoid of some positive event. To estimate this frequency, participants need to ascertain the extent to which these images are similar to the prototypical events that coincide with negative feelings. Imagines of life devoid of some positive event most likely resemble events that provoke negative feelings. Individuals, therefore, will assume that such negative feelings will be prevalent.

Moderators of affective forecasting

Individual differences

A few studies have examined some individual demographics or traits that could affect the magnitude of errors in affective forecasting. Nielsen, Knutson, and Carstensen (2008), for instance, showed that younger individuals, at least in some contexts, demonstrate more pronounced errors in affective forecasting. Specifically, younger, but not older, individuals overestimated the level of arousal they would experience after winning money after performing well on some task. In addition, these individuals underestimated the level of arousal they would experience while anticipating whether they would win or lose.

Conceivably, with age, individuals might learn to recognition that emotions during and after some event might differ-and the extent to which feelings are arousing and positive can be differentiated. Younger individuals might conflate some of these distinctions, which could amplify errors in affective forecasting (Nielsen, Knutson, & Carstensen, 2008).


Emanuel, Updegraff, Kalmbach, and Ciesla (2010) argued that mindfulness, in which individuals orient their attention to their immediate environment and sensations, without judging their thoughts and emotions, may curb affective forecasting. Specifically, when individuals demonstrate mindfulness, they become more aware of the fluctuating emotional states. Their attention is not fixated on a specific issue or event. They might, therefore, be less inclined to show an impact bias. That is, because they do not direct undue attention to one stimulus or thought, they might not overestimate the emotional consequences of a single event. Focalism may decline.

Emanuel, Updegraff, Kalmbach, and Ciesla (2010) verified this possibility. In their study, participants completed a measure of mindfulness that comprises five facets. One facet, for example, represents the extent to which individuals often observe their feelings, emotions, sensations, urges, and other states. In addition, two weeks before a US election, participants predicted the degree to which they will feel various emotions four weeks later if the Democrats or Republicans won. They also specified who they preferred would win. Their actual emotions were also assessed two weeks after this election.

Many participants exhibited the impact bias. That is, they overestimated the happiness they would feel if their preferred candidate won. Similarly, they overestimated the sadness they would feel if their preferred candidate lost. However, if participants maintained they often observe their feelings, emotions, sensations, urges, and other states, this impact bias diminished. Other facets of mindfulness were not associated with the impact bias.


Experience with events does not seem to appreciably curb the likelihood or magnitude of affective forecasts. Individuals who had failed a driving test before were as likely as individuals who had not attempted this test to overestimate the adverse emotions they will feel in the aftermath of a future failure in this context (Ayton, Pott, & Elwakili, 2007). These findings highlight that affective forecasting errors seem to be immune to natural learning processes.

Emotional skills

Dunn, Brackett, Ashton-James, Schneiderman, and Salovey (2007) showed that individuals who perform proficiently on some facets of emotional intelligence are less likely to demonstrate errors in affective forecasting. Specifically, performance but not self report tests of emotional management seem to be inversely related to these errors.

Defocusing techniques

Car users often predict they will be dissatisfied with public transport overall& they believe, for example, they will not feel safe on the stations, the travel time will be prolonged, and the seats will be unclean. Interestingly, after individuals are asked to list daily activities, and then how long they dedicate to these activities, this dissatisfaction subsides (Pedersen, Kristensson, & Friman, 2012).

Presumably, when car users reflect upon public transport, their attention may orient towards the complications, a variant of the focusing illusion. Consequently, they may exaggerate the emotional impact of these complications, called the intensity bias (Wilson et al., 2000). However, if people are asked to consider many other features of their life, this bias might diminish. Individuals become more aware of all the features of their life that will not decline, diminishing the intensity of these emotions (Pedersen, Kristensson, & Friman, 2012).

Related concepts

Forecasting of events

Other forms of forecasting, in addition to affective forecasting, also are important in many contexts. Shipman, Byrne, and Mumford (2010), for example, examined the capacity of individuals to forecast the effect of their plans and strategies. In particular, in this study, participants assumed the role as a principal of a school. They were told they needed to develop a plan to improve the school as well as to prepare a speech to students, parents, and teachers, promulgating their vision of the future. This vision could refer to teaching strategies, process improvements, and special activities, all intended to improve the performance of students.

After they planned these strategies, but before they prepared the speech, participants were asked to forecast the implications of their plans. That is, they were instructed to consider the events that might unfold if their plans were implemented.

A series of independent judges evaluated these forecasts. For example, judges rated the extent to which the forecasts were extensive--that is, comprehensive, specific, and appropriate, alluding to many possible outcomes. In addition, judges rated the degree to which these forecasts considered changes in resource allocation. Third, judges evaluated the extent to which the forecasts anticipated errors, considered obstacles, and predicted negative rather than positive implications. Finally, judges assessed the degree to which the forecasts considered the timeframe and the possible need to extent the deadlines (Shipman, Byrne, & Mumford, 2010).

These measures of forecasting predicted the extent to which other judges perceived the visionary speech as elegant, original, emotive, and elevated in quality and utility. Specifically, extensive forecasts, in which many possible outcomes were considered, were especially likely to predict suitable speeches. Conceivably, deliberation over many possible outcomes perhaps activated a broader array of mental models--more insights, theories, explanations, and characterizations of the events and practices that generate specific changes. The understanding of these causes enables individuals to form a more compelling and coherent vision of the future (Shipman, Byrne, & Mumford, 2010).

Shipman, Byrne, and Mumford (2010) also examined the mindsets or orientations that enhance the capacity of individuals to forecast these implications effectively. For example, all participants read case studies that illustrated previous teaching strategies. Some participants were merely instructed to focus on the details or facts, such as how these methods were evaluated. Other participants were told to consider the implications of these teaching strategies, such as how these methods might attract funding. Thoughts about implications, instead of facts, enhanced forecasting (Shipman, Byrne, & Mumford, 2010).


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