CogniFit

Affective Forecasting: Predicting your emotions

“Will I be chosen for the job interview?” “If I accept the offer, what is the likelihood I will enjoy my new position better than my old?” We all wish we could predict the future, as well as the feelings that accompany those predications. With affective forecasting, such an endeavor is possible! Affective forecasting allows us to predict our future emotional states. It is a critical asset to the decision-making process in day-to-day life and reveals both the positive and negative attributes of personality.

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What is Affective Forecasting?

Affective forecasting is the process of predicting a future emotional state or how you will feel in the future. In psychology, the term is derived from predicting one’s “affect,” which refers to the experience of feelings and mood. Affective forecasting involves our reactions to certain events, as well as how we feel if we were to finally obtain something we want. This type of predicting differs from anticipating the weather or whether you will win the next lottery. Instead, affective forecasting focuses on the feelings of such events. For example, you may believe winning the lottery may impact your happiness. The process of affective forecasting is relevant to guiding decision making, behavior, and preferences because we are constantly forming expectations regarding our emotional states.

History of Affective Forecasting

In the 1990s, social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson founded the concept of affective forecasting, which also took on the name of hedonic forecasting. Both Gilbert and Wilson studied the accuracy of affective forecasting. In the beginning, they did not focus as much on people’s responses. Their main concerns were the emotions underlying said responses.

Components of Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting is a multi-faceted concept. According to Wilson and Gilbert (2003), there are four distinct components:

  1. Valence—Will the emotion be positive or negative?
  2. Specific emotion(s) experienced—Do you feel happy, sad, anxious, etc.?
  3. Emotional Intensity—How strongly do you feel the specific emotion(s)?
  4. Duration of the emotions—How long do the emotions last?

Investigating these components, researchers conducted studies starting with the ways participants forecasted their specific emotions based on winning or losing a simulated dating game. Further studies by Woodzicka and LaFrance used with female participants who predicted they would feel angry and frightened if they were asked sexually harassing questions during a job interview. These studies each revealed that people tend to accurately predict what emotions they will feel about future events. However, they are often inaccurate in predicting which emotion will be felt most intensely. For example, in the Woodzicka and LaFrance study, the women were actually more frightened than angry.

Affective Forecasting Errors

Wilson and Gilbert proposed that people are prone to errors in predicting their future emotions about an event. Although they expect their general emotions about something occurring in the future (i.e. happy, sad, anxious, etc.), the following affective forecasting errors can potentially skew these predications.  

Projection Bias or “Mental Contamination”

Projection bias is the most common affective forecasting error. It is when current emotions impact the prediction of future emotions. For example, spilling coffee on your favorite blouse provokes a bad mood, and if you later forecast how you will feel about an upcoming work function, your negative emotional state can affect your prediction. This creates a biased view. We must be cognizant of our projection biases—or “mental contamination”—to have an accurate affective forecast.

Empathy gaps are the leading cause of projection bias, which is a cognitive bias characterizing the physiological arousal influencing one’s attitudes, preferences, and behaviors that the forecaster fails to consider.

False Consensus

Also a form of cognitive bias, false consensus is the overestimation of the extent to which personal opinions, preferences, values, and habits are normal. Someone displaying false consensus believes people generally feel the same way they do. False consensus involves the availability heuristic—a concept that, when attempting to determine how common something is, we notice the examples that easily come to mind. False consensus occurs because we surround ourselves with others who are similar in beliefs and values. Thus, our beliefs are most familiar and we are more likely to notice people who have mutual opinions.

Expectation Effects

Expectation effects are significant in affective forecasting. This forecasting error stems from expecting one outcome but experiencing another. Expectation effects influence perception, as well as behavior. There is a range of expectation effects that help explain how expectations can interfere with forecasting in situations pertaining to work productivity, education, medical treatment, and more. The placebo effect demonstrates this. Solely because they believe the treatment will be successful, a patient experiences positive treatment effects.

Focalism

Focalism includes the cognitive skill of attention. This describes the tendency for people to hyperfocus on specific details of an event or emotion while ignoring others. Focalism is an illusion that creates biased judgments, as it leads to an exaggeration of the factors receiving the most focused attention. As an example, considering the negative ways a disability impacts one’s life, an able-bodied individual may believe the disabled are not as happy and content as their healthy counterparts. Focalism also plays a role in social comparison. People focus on their own futures, abilities, and traits while underestimating their peers.

Temporal Discounting

Temporal discounting goes by the names of time discounting or time preferences. The forecasting error is the capacity for people to weigh future events with their present desires. A great number of the population prefers immediate gratification versus delayed gratification. If not cautious, emotions centered around the desire for obtaining what we want immediately obscure accurate predictions of how we will feel in the future.

Affective Forecasting and Personality

Researchers have extended much effort into studying how personality connects to affective forecasting. Various personality types do have an impact on the accuracy of future predictions. While forecasting, personality should be accounted for to accurately predict future emotions. Traits like optimism lead to generally positive forecasts. The chronically optimistic might diminish the negative feelings they will feel after receiving bad news. The inverse is also true. Those who are pessimistic may underestimate their happiness for good events.

Recent studies of the association between affective forecasting and the Big Five personality traits (i.e. openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) reflect that personalities high in introversion and neuroticism had more accurate predictions for negative emotions, whereas those who are extroverted and less neurotic predicted positive emotions more accurately (Hoerger, Chapman, and Duberstein, 2016).

Affective Forecasting: Happiness Versus Negativity

Related to personality, affective forecasting has lasting implications on happiness. We cope with negative emotions through affective forecasting, because the process assists us in maintaining realistic expectations of life events. As we anticipate positive future events and manage expectations, we are content in recognizing the value of happiness. We cherish the happy emotions rather than taking them for granted.

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Individuals who underestimate their positive feelings of a future event during affective forecasting are happier than those who overestimate how happiness. Overestimating happiness progresses to disappointment. However, underestimating boosts feelings of happiness because of increased positive emotions.

Affective Forecasting in Day-to-Day Life

Affective forecasting is not a foreign psychological topic that people rarely apply. It is relevant in many aspects of day-to-day life. In fact, it is so prevalent we do not even realize we are forecasting the future.

Social Relationships

Affective forecasting is applied while interacting in our social groups. Forecasting begins with our first impression judgments of another person, especially in those we do not already know. From there, we decide whether we are interested in spending time with that person. A favorable first impression leads to positive forecasts, as we predict we will benefit from that particular relationship. An unfavorable impression leads to negative emotions, and consequently, avoidance of that relationship.

Studies by Wilson and Gilbert (2008) demonstrate that differences influence affective forecasting. With students as participants, they overestimated their negative emotions when told they would be interacting with students from a different racial group.

Setting Goals

Setting goals are how we reach accomplishments in life. Affective forecasting, when appropriately utilized, optimizes goal setting. We set goals based on our predictions of the future. Affective forecasting encourages us to cultivate goals from the view of what we want instead of what will please others. Through affective forecasting, we predict how we will feel about a potential future accomplishment. For example, a career with a higher salary does not necessarily produce the same satisfaction as a job we are passionate about but earns less. This fosters hard work to achieve good outcomes consistent with our goals.

Decision Making and Self-Regulation

Affective forecasting is crucial to the processes of decision making and self-regulation. Similar to goal setting, other decisions are determined through the predictions of future emotions. This can range from expecting fulfillment from an evening outing for dessert because you have been craving vanilla ice cream all day to serious decisions such as planning which college you wish to attend out of the excitement of finally moving forward with a new life milestone. We are likely to make decisions forecasted to have good outcomes, yet inaccurate affective forecasting by not accounting for errors and bias drives negative outcomes. Along with decision making comes our behaviors. When affective forecasting is done effectively, we are better equipped at self-regulation—the ability to better handle emotions surrounding both positive and negative outcomes. We are also able to adjust our behaviors to prepare for a future event. Our lives are brimming with possibilities because of affective forecasting!

References

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

Kurtz, J. L. (2018). Affective forecasting. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of wellbeing. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.

Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00199