Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting is the cognitive process of predicting how our future mental and emotional states may affect our decisions and abilities. It is imperative for enabling someone to prepare for their future and manage their expectations.

What Is Affective Forecasting?

Affective forecasting refers to the anticipation of a person’s affective or emotional state in the future. Conversely known as hedonic forecasting, this process can significantly influence someone’s decisions, preferences, behaviours and actions. Psychologists Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert explain 1 the concept as “people’s predictions about their future feelings.” During their study, the researchers identified certain elements regarding one’s emotional experience which a person can predict, such as –

  • Hedonic tone or valence of the future emotion(s) (intrinsic positive or negative quality of the affect)
  • Experience of particular future emotion(s), such as joy or guilt
  • Intensity of the future emotion(s)
  • Duration of the future emotion(s)

This means that when someone attempts to anticipate their emotions, they usually consider whether the emotion will be good or bad, what specific emotion may be felt, how strongly they may feel the emotion and for how long they may feel it. However, research 2 indicates that affective forecasts can be too extreme at times.

Although the term affective forecasting was coined by researchers Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert, research on the theory initially began in the 1990s. Early studies tended to focus only on analyzing emotional predictions and the impact it could have on decision making. However, later studies started to focus on the accuracy of the prediction.

Errors In Affective Forecasting

Evidence shows that most individuals tend to be somewhat ineffective at accurately anticipating their emotions. The primary reasons for such inaccuracies and errors are perception biases and external influences from the environment. According to a 2003 study 3 by Wilson & Gilbert, some of the most common reasons for affective forecasting errors mainly include:

  • Misinterpreting the nature of an event in the future
  • Mistakes in remembering or inaccurate recalling of previous emotional experiences
  • False or inaccurate affective theories
  • Inability to correct for unique influences on predictions
  • Framing effects

“Additional sources of error stem from people’s failure to take into account, when making affective forecasts, factors that will influence their later emotions,” states the study. Apart from these, certain cognitive biases are also associated with errors in affective forecasts such as impact bias, focalism and empathy gap. While making affective forecasts, people “often display an impact bias, overestimating the intensity and duration of their emotional reactions to such events. One cause of the impact bias is focalism, the tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings,” explains a 2005 study 4 by Wilson & Gilbert.

Apart from these, certain cognitive determinants should be considered as well. One 2010 study 5 found that “the perceived importance of the event and working memory capacity were both associated with an increased impact bias” for some individuals. Moreover, individuals also tend to inaccurately predict how fast they will be able to recover emotionally from an experience or make sense of things, especially in case of negative events. The researchers add “People fail to anticipate how quickly they will cope psychologically with such events in ways that speed their recovery from them.”

Accuracy Of Affective Forecasting

Research indicates that a person’s passion for a particular activity or event tends to influence the inaccuracy and errors in forecasting. A 2012 study 6 found that both harmonious and obsessive passions of a person play an important role. It is believed that harmonious passion, which arises from an integrated self-structure, can make affective forecasts more reasonable and consistent with the affective reactions an individual experiences. Here, the activity is considered more important than identity.

However, obsessive passion generates from ego-invested self-structures and the focus of the prediction is primarily on the identity of the person instead of the activity. Hence, obsessive passion is not regarded as an important moderator for accuracy in affective forecasting. The study states “Results revealed that harmonious passion was associated with greater affective forecasting accuracy. Obsessive passion was unrelated to this phenomenon.”

Understanding Affective Forecasting

Through affective forecasts, an individual typically attempts to predict the positive emotions they will experience in the future while planning for negative experiences and worst outcomes that may occur. However people often anticipate their future emotional state incorrectly as they consider it from their present perspective. Moreover, how a person feels in the present moment strongly influences their future judgments, decisions and even present forecasting abilities. Hence, they tend to misinterpret and misunderstand what may actually make them experience positive emotions in the future. It has been observed that not only people fail to correctly analyze and consider their future mental and emotional states, they may also overestimate how good or bad they may feel about certain situations in the future. As we are usually poor judges of our future emotions in a given situation, it is believed that the best way to do forecasting is to discuss with and take advice from someone who has already experienced similar situations personally in the past.

Although affective forecasting is mostly popular among psychologists and economists, the concept can be widely implemented in a number of different fields such as ethics, law, finance, health care and happiness research.

Factors That Influence Affective Forecasting

Some of the most common factors that impact affective forecasting usually conducted by most people include the following:

1. Projection bias

Projection bias 7 refers to a person’s tendency to wrongly project their current preferences into the future. But what they may require now may not be important in the future. Our present and momentary emotional state can substantially influence our forecasting and future selves. Irrespective of how much someone wants to be unbiased in their prediction, it will be corrupted by their present emotional state. Hence, it is often difficult for them to anticipate their future accurately. Wilson and Gilbert define projection bias as “the tendency for people to under-appreciate the effects of changes in their states, and hence falsely project their current preferences… onto their future preferences.” It is considered as a form of mental contamination where the emotions, judgments and behaviours of a person are influenced in undesirable ways.

2. False consensus effect

Also known as consensus bias, this psychological concept refers to the tendency of people to wrongly assume how others have the same characteristics, values, beliefs, personality traits and behaviours as themselves. This can make people overestimate their own likability or how much others may agree with them. It is a pervasive cognitive bias which makes someone believe that their judgments and behavioural choices are widespread among general people and are appropriate for the present situation. This effect is crucial as it helps to significantly boost one’s self-esteem.

A research paper 8 published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology states “Evidence from four studies demonstrates that social observers tend to perceive a false consensus” with respect to the relative commonness of their own responses.”

3. Temporal or time discounting

This is another cognitive bias characterized by our tendency to give more importance to current events than future events. Most of us want to experience things at the moment rather than wait for it in the future. Also known as time preference or present bias or hyperbolic discounting, it makes someone prefer immediate gratification over delayed gratification, particularly over extended periods of time. People tend to avoid thinking about effects in the future when the duration is longer in time. This notion shows that a person’s decisions and judgements are often biased toward current events.

4. Focalism

According to a 2011 study 9, “People typically exaggerate the emotional impact of future events. This occurs because of focalism, the tendency to focus on one event and neglect to consider how emotion will be mitigated by the surrounding context.” Focalism refers to the tendency to focus on specific pieces of information or details regarding an experience or an event and avoiding other factors while making predictions and judgments for the future. Also known as anchoring or focusing illusion, it shows that individuals tend to underestimate how the details of an event can influence their emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Wilson and Gilbert explain “The focalism hypothesis is relevant to a possible artifactual explanation of the impact bias that concerns the way in which people interpret the forecasting and actual happiness questions.”

By relying too heavily on certain details of an event, our future judgments and decision making gets affected. It has also been observed that we tend to exaggerate certain facets of our lives when we focus our attention on it. One 2000 study 10 states “The durability bias, the tendency to overpredict the duration of affective reactions to future events, may be due in part to focalism, whereby people focus too much on the event in question and not enough on the consequences of other future events.”

Affective Forecasting & Personality

Affective forecasting is believed to be associated with a person’s personality. Different personality types have different approaches to anticipate possible future outcomes. An optimistic person may see their future differently than a pessimistic one. This may be driven by the Big Five personality traits –

  • Neuroticism
  • Extraversion
  • Openness to experience
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness

One 2010 study 11 found that “individual differences have an important role to play in the field of affective forecasting.” According to another 2015 study 12 personality traits like extraversion and neuroticism can influence our emotional reactions, both predicted & actual, to a range of events, experiences and stimuli. The study reveals that “Personality explained 30% of the concordance between predicted and actual emotional reactions,” and that “Findings suggest three purported personality processes implicated in affective forecasting.”

Affective Forecasting And Happiness

Happiness is often determined by positive predictions about the future and managing one’s expectations and anxiety about the occurrence of future negative events. But as most people tend to make inaccurate affective forecasts, they usually underestimate the level of happiness and joy they may experience in future by responding naturally to certain and uncertain events. However, if an optimistic person tends to overestimate their level of happiness in the future, then it may negatively affect their happiness. Contrarily, if a pessimistic person underestimates future happiness due to affective forecasting, then they may experience excessive happiness.

But as no one can accurately predict the events or how they may feel in the future, it is best to have realistic expectations and be prepared for both positive and negative emotions and events.

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  2. Ayton, P., Pott, A., & Elwakili, N. (2007). Affective forecasting: Why can’t people predict their emotions? Thinking & Reasoning, 13(1), 62-80. []
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  8. Lee Ross, David Greene, Pamela House,
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  9. Lench HC, Safer MA, Levine LJ. Focalism and the underestimation of future emotion: when it’s worse than imagined. Emotion. 2011 Apr;11(2):278-85. doi: 10.1037/a0022792. PMID: 21500897. []
  10. Wilson TD, Wheatley T, Meyers JM, Gilbert DT, Axsom D. Focalism: a source of durability bias in affective forecasting. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000 May;78(5):821-36. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.5.821. PMID: 10821192. []
  11. Hoerger, M., & Quirk, S. W. (2010). Affective forecasting and the Big Five. Personality and individual differences, 49(8), 972–976. []
  12. Hoerger, M., Chapman, B., & Duberstein, P. (2015). Realistic affective forecasting: The role of personality. Cognition and Emotion, 30(7), 1304-1316. []
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