How Accurately Can We Predict Our Future Feelings?

This is an important question to ask as it affects the decisions we make.   This question was addressed in an article titled, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?  Predicting Future Feelings” by George Loewenstein and David Schkade in the book, Well-Being:  The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology edited by Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz.

The chapter begins by stating three principles:
1.   People often hold incorrect intuitive theories about the determinants of happiness, which in turn lead to errors when predictions are based on them.
2.  Different considerations might be salient when predicting future feelings than those that actually influence experienced feelings.
3.  When in a “cold” state people often have difficulty imagining how they would fel or what they might do if they were in a “hot” state—for example, angry, hungry, in pain, or sexually excited.  It may also be the case that, when in a hot state, people frequently have difficulty imagining that they will inevitably cool off eventually.    Such “hot/cold” empathy gaps can lead to errors in predicting both feelings and behavior.

The authors also offer ideas as to why we typically fail to learn from experience.  “Learning from experience does not seem to offer a broad cure for prediction errors because intuitive theories are often resistant to change, memories of experiences are often themselves biased or incomplete, and experiences rarely repeat themselves often enough to make diagnostic patterns noticeable.”

Take the lottery, for example.  Many think that all their problems will be over if only they win the lottery.  Here are the results from winners of lotteries varying between $50k and $100k.  The average rating of their happiness was 4.0 on a 5.0 scale.   A control group of comparable individuals rated their average happiness as 3.82, suggesting that the lottery boozed their happiness by about 0.18.  Consider also the rated happiness of people who had experienced a disability from an accident, which was 2.96.  This result is typical.  We tend to overestimate the happiness that good things bring, and overestimate the sadness that bad things bring.  We tend to adapt to our conditions be they good or bad.

We also tend to over predict how fearful we shall be in potentially threatening situations.  For example, military trains undergoing parachute training over predicted they level of fear they experience on the first and most difficult jump.

Forty-four dental patients were interviewed both before and after dental a dental appointment.  On average, patients over predicted the degree of pain they would experience.  The mean expected level of pain was 16.5 and the reported actual level of experienced pain was 9.0.  The correlation between expected and experienced pain was 0.16, which is quite small.

We can also under predict pain.  A majority if expectant mothers stated a desire and intention not to use anesthesia  during childbirth, but reversed their prior decision when they went into labor.  This reversal of preference occurred among not only women giving birth for the first time, but also for those who had previously experienced the pain of childbirth.

There are also differences between healthy and sick people’s attitudes toward “heroic measures”  to extend the lives of the terminally ill.  Many healthy Americans, this healthy American included, state that we don’t want to die in a nursing home or hospital or, worse yet, an intensive-care unit, but 90 percent of dying patients, most of whom die in acute-care hospital, view the care they receive favorably.

In another study, different groups of respondents were asked whether they would accept a grueling course of chemotherapy if it would extend their lives by three months.  No radiotherapists said they would accept the chemotherapy, only 6 percent of the oncologists, and 10 percent of healthy people, but 42 percent of current cancer patients said that they would.   Another study found that 58 percent of patients with serious illnesses said that when death was near they would want treatment, even if it prolonged life by just a week.

The experienced quality of life of sick persons also appears to be underestimated.  In a study of 126 elderly outpatients with five common chronic diseases (arthritis, ischemic heart disease, chronic pulmonary disease, diabetes mellitus, and cancer) found that these patients generally rated their quality of life to be slightly worse than, “good, no major complaints.:

We are especially prone to mis-predict our behavior under temptation or duress.  See the health memory blog post “Good vs. Evil.”  We tend to overestimate the strength of our own willpower and to underestimate the influence of being in a hot state.  Included here are matters of sexual desire, drug craving, curiosity, the urge to spend, and hunger.

It would be good to conclude by presenting the results of the mean rang of different items with respect to producing happiness.

The importance of family life is most important, followed by friends, a satisfying job, and a high income.  It is noteworthy that income comes in last.  Obviously a certain amount of income is required for a satisfactory family life, but once a particular level of income has been reached, we do not become much happier.  $75k is the figure commonly cited and that will likely increase over time and be a function of circumstances.  However, beyond providing security and the basic comforts of life, it does not add much happiness.  I would argue that the pursuit of wealth is primarily a matter of ego and prestige, rather than living a satisfying life, per se.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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