Forecasting Our Emotions: Why Are We So Bad at It?

We are notoriously bad at forecasting our emotions, for a variety of reasons. New science suggests that personality may play an unrecognized and key role in determining future happiness.
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I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and I will vote for him again in 2012. I think he is doing a good job on balance, and right now I can't think of a single Republican I would prefer in that office. So if I were to forecast my state of mind following a second Obama victory, it would be a no-brainer for me: I will be a happy man.

But is this true? Or is it possible that an Obama victory will not bring me the joy I imagine? We humans are notoriously bad at forecasting our emotions, for a variety of reasons -- collectively known as the "futuristic heuristic." I discuss this cognitive disability at length in my new book, "On Second Thought," and I've now come across some new science that underscores the complexity of emotional prediction. It appears that my personality may play an unrecognized and key role in determining my future happiness.

The new evidence comes from the lab of Jordi Quoidbach, a psychological scientist at the University of Liege, Belgium. Quoidbach suspected that our natural disposition -- for optimism or for negativity -- might be a more powerful predictor of future happiness than any specific event. And he also suspected that most of us ignore our own personalities when thinking about what lies ahead -- and thus miscalculate our future feelings.

Quoidbach calls this phenomenon "personality neglect," which he tested in connection with the 2008 U.S. presidential election. In early October 2008, he asked a large sample of Belgian adults to predict how they would feel on Nov. 5, the day after the election, if Obama or John McCain won. Then, on that day, he asked them how they actually felt -- using standard laboratory instruments for measuring happiness. He also ran personality tests on the group, focusing especially on optimism and neuroticism, or emotional negativity.

Because 98 percent of the Belgians in the group were Obama supporters, his election was a positive event for the purposes of the experiment. When Quoidbach crunched the data, the findings were intriguing: As reported in the online version of the journal Psychological Science, personality was unrelated to predictions of happiness, with both neurotic and cheerful Obama fans saying a victory would bring them joy. But only the cheerful ones were right about this. That is, the grumpy supporters were as grumpy as ever, despite the celebratory event. They "forgot" their own proclivity for malaise -- and overestimated how happy they would be. The positive individuals were more accurate in their forecasting because their natural joie de vivre prevailed. So, ironically, optimistic people seem less likely than negative people to see the world through rose-colored glasses.

Why the disconnect between forecasting and reality? Quoidbach thinks it has to do with the structure of human memory. Our self-knowledge -- our sense of our own natural disposition -- is stored in what's called semantic memory. But simulations of the future are constructed from information in our episodic memory. These two memory systems operate independently, so that when we imagine our feelings somewhere in the future, we don't have access to a crucial bit of information -- the essence of who we are.

So what does this mean -- besides the obvious fact that Obama should consider running for office in Belgium? Well, there are real-life implications for our sense of well-being, Quoidbach believes. Think about planning a vacation, for example. Optimists probably don't need to spend a lot of time and effort on planning out every detail -- because they will be pretty happy with most any vacation. But those who are grumpy by nature may want to optimize vacation details as a precaution: A perfect vacation won't alter their general grumpiness, but it won't add to it either. Taking a moment to reflect on one's emotional proclivities may be a good idea.

Which is what I'm going to do as I look forward to the presidential election of 2012.

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