Imagining the Future

June 8, 2016

Aren’t you positively brimming with joy, now that winter has gone? No? Me neither. Yet several months ago, I couldn’t wait for the Ottawa snow to melt and spring to start. Now that it’s here, though, I can’t really tell what I thought was so exciting.

This is because when we imagine the future—like how we’ll feel when spring starts—we tend to only focus on the most salient features of whatever we picture. In a 2005 study, Kent Lam and his colleagues asked Canadians about how happy they would feel when it got warmer, and then measured later how happy they actually were.

The Euro-Canadians in the study thought they’d be much happier than they ended up being. (The Asians in the study, though, did not. Evidence suggests East Asian cultures think more holistically, and don’t focus much on just one difference.) In other words, if you only think about the most central feature of a future event, as one is likely to do with an “analytical” mindset, it can distort your predictions about your own happiness.

Here’s another example: Think of your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant. Now imagine that through some contest you win ten free meals there, but you have to choose which meals you’re going to eat right away. Would you choose to have your favorite dish every time? Of course not—we like variety.

Yet, according to a 1995 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, people tend to choose a variety whether the ten meals are in the next ten days or once every three months. “It appears that consumers plan much more diversity for themselves than they will subsequently want,” the researchers wrote. “We refer to this as the diversification bias.” People will make bad choices about their future because they don’t really understand the relationship between infrequency and novelty.

You’re happiest when you have a variety of something good over a short timespan, or an infrequent amount of the same thing over a longer timespan, but you don’t need both. If you’re eating at your favorite restaurant every three months, you’re probably going to want your favorite dish every time.

We also have problems trying to predict how happy things are going to make us—something psychologists call “affective forecasting.” We think bad things will feel worse than they actually will, and we think good things will feel better than they actually will. For example, we tend to expect to have more grief than we actually do when thinking about some future loss, such as the loss of a loved one.

How far in the future we imagine something to be matters, too. If you imagine losing a loved one, for instance, in the next week, you’re far more likely to picture them in a familiar location than if you imagine losing them 5 years from now.

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