100 Things You Should Know About People: #21 — You Overestimate Your Reactions to Future Events

Lottery ticketHere’s is a thought experiment – On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, rate how happy you are right now. Write that number down. Now, I want you to imagine that today you win the lottery. You now have more money than you ever thought you would. You have millions and millions of dollars. At the end of today what would be your happiness rating? Write that number down. What about 2 years from now? What will be your happiness rating 2 years from now if today you win millions and millions in the lottery?

People are poor predictors — In his great book, Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert discusses the research he and others have conducted on predicting or estimating emotional reactions to events. What he has found is that people greatly overestimate the reaction they think they will have to both pleasant and unpleasant events that happen in one’s life. Whether it is predicting how you will feel if a negative event happens, for example, if you lose your job, have an accident, or if a loved one dies, or predicting how you will feel if a positive event happens, such as coming into a lot of money, landing the dream job, or finding the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, everyone tends to overestimate their reaction. If the event is negative you predict that you will be very upset and devastated for a long time. If the event is positive you predict that you will be deliriously happy for a long time.

A built-in regulator -- The truth is that you have a built-in regulator of sorts so that whether negative events happen or positive events happen, you stay at about the same level of happiness most of the time. Some people are generally happier or less happy than others, and this level of happiness stays constant no matter what happens to them.

Preference vs. Reality – One interesting implication of this is in the field of marketing or user experience research. Be careful of believing customers if they tell you that by making this change or that change to a product that means that they would be much happier with it, or that they would never use it again. People may prefer one thing over another or think they will, but the strength of their reaction, either in a positive or a negative way, is probably not as much as they imagine it will be.

Have you experienced this difference between your own predictions and reactions? Have there been times when you were sure that a particular event would mean you would be really happy or unhappy and it turned out differently than you imagined?

For more reading:

Stumbling on Happiness By Dan Gilbert

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2 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #21 — You Overestimate Your Reactions to Future Events
  1. Walter says:

    It truly is a great book. I have read it three times to remember some of the most important fact about us humans. I now know better and I won’t fell again to the illusion of my mind. :-)

  2. Eesha says:

    Hey this reminds me of something equally interesting I read a while ago. Now I dont remember where I read it, so apologies for the lack of credibility but it said that our brain only has one scale of ‘emotional high and low’ so to speak, and we adjust all of our life experiences according to it.

    What you say here, resonates with that.

    That theory also helps explain why most of the time, atrocious acts of killing or devastation do not move us to the extent they theoretically should. Its because our brain adjusts them down to a ‘normal’ level.

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
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