Understanding Affective Forecasting: How Well Can We Predict How We’ll Feel in the Future?

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Adolescence is a time of change. Some of these changes are outside a young person’s control, but others require making decisions. That might be what to do after leaving secondary school, which subjects to study, or decisions about relationships with others.

Affective forecasting is when we predict (forecast) how we will feel in the future. It often plays a big role in our decision-making processes: we are more likely to choose to do something that we think will make us feel good while avoiding things that we think will make us feel bad. However, research suggests that, in general, people tend to misjudge their emotional reactions to future events.

Across different ages and demographics, people tend to overestimate the intensity and duration of their emotional reactions. They think that positive events will make them feel happier – and for longer – than they feel when it happens and that negative events will make them feel worse – and for longer – than they actually do.

The Impact Bias

The tendency to overestimate the intensity and duration of our future emotional reactions is known as the impact bias. Research has consistently found an impact bias in our affective forecasting among different groups of people and in different contexts, including young people.

For example, college students overestimated how happy or unhappy they would be when they were given a desirable or undesirable dormitory. Even 5-year-olds overestimated how unhappy they would be losing a game (although they did not overestimate their happiness upon winning).

Focalism: How Important to Us Are Future Events?

One of the reasons that we overestimate our emotional responses to future events is that we think this event will be more important to us – in the context of all the other things in our lives – than it is when it actually happens.

We often expect that an event like a relationship break-up or starting a new job will occupy almost all of our thoughts and feelings at that time, and we’ll spend little time thinking or dwelling on other things. 

In reality, however, we tend to overestimate how much we focus on one important event. Even when something big happens, other things that are going on in our lives usually still influence our thoughts and feelings, lessening the emotional impact that any one event has.

How Making Sense of Things Makes Us Less Happy – Or Less Unhappy

Research shows that we usually feel most happy when something unexpectedly (or inexplicably) good happens and least happy when we experience something inexplicably bad.

For example, if a young person receives an A grade on an exam and they’re not sure why, they’ll probably feel very happy. On the other hand, if they receive an A grade and they were expecting it, their emotional reaction will likely be less intense and last for a shorter time.

When something happens to us that is unexpected or hard to explain, our brains automatically try to find explanations for it. This a process that often happens unconsciously, without us realising it. So, the student may try to find explanations for their high grade. Or, a young person who arrives at university and enjoys it much less than they expected might try to work out why.

The end result is that once our brains have found explanations for these events, our emotional reactions will be less strong. This means that we will start to feel less overjoyed by a positive event but also less sad about a negative one.

In the latter case, understanding why certain things have happened can help us cope with them and take a more positive perspective on our lives.

So, how does this relate to affective forecasting? Usually, when we predict how a future event will make us feel, we don’t think about the fact that once we’ve explained an event, our feelings will be less intense – especially since this process is often quick and unconscious.

Instead, we imagine how an event would make us feel if it remained unexplained, and so we expect a longer and more intense feeling of happiness or unhappiness.

Coping and Recovering

Everyday life inevitably involves good and bad things. As humans, our brains and bodies are designed to help us cope with negative events, recover from bad things that happen, and move on from distressing emotions.

Our minds use lots of different methods to help us do this: for example, by rationalising, self-affirmation, and even positive allusions. Of course, sometimes our minds use these strategies more effectively than at other times.

In particular, people with mental health disorders may find it more difficult to cope with and overcome emotional distress. And when people experience trauma, their coping mechanisms can change completely, turning to strategies like avoidance or dissociation to protect themselves from their emotions and memories.

But in general, our psychological coping mechanisms mean that we are able to handle difficult and unexpected events, see the positive side of things, and ‘make the best’ of our circumstances. People are often surprised by their own resilience, but it is worth remembering that we usually have more skills and tools to cope with things than we think we do.

How Does Our Current Mood Affect Our Affective Forecasting?

As a rule of thumb, the impact bias holds. While we usually accurately predict whether something will make us feel good or bad, we tend to overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions. However, there are, of course, exceptions.

One notable exception is when our current emotions affect how we think we’ll feel in the future. Sometimes, when we are in a ‘cold’ emotional state, when we aren’t experiencing many emotions or when we feel dull or detached, it can be hard to imagine that we will ever feel ‘hot’, intense emotions.

This might happen when we are bored, lethargic, calm, or controlled. In these states, we might underestimate the emotional reaction we have to a future event because it’s difficult to conceive that we will feel strong emotions.

On the other hand, when we are in a ‘hot’ emotional state, full of intense emotions, it can be very hard to imagine a ‘cold’ emotional state. We may predict that every event that happens will make us experience intense and lasting emotions.

How Do Experiences of Trauma Affect Young People’s Expectations of the Future?

Experiences of trauma, whether it’s a single event or a culmination of many, can have a big effect on young people’s brains, minds, and emotional well-being. Experiences of trauma are linked to mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Research shows that exposure to traumatic events can affect several regions and functions of the brain, including those responsible for our emotional regulation and responses.

Young people who have experienced trauma are more likely to have a heightened emotional response to internal and external events. They also may be less able to regulate, control, and understand their emotions. This means that when they imagine how they will feel about future events, they may also be more likely to predict an intense emotional reaction.

A study among undergraduate students found that young people with exposure to trauma were more likely to predict a stronger negative emotional response towards future negative life events.

This relationship was mediated by emotional dysregulation. These results suggest that addressing emotional dysregulation among young people with trauma may help them to have a more positive imagination of their futures.

Affective Forecasting, Young People, and Thoughts About the Future

For young people making decisions about the future, it can help to keep in mind that we overestimate how much an event will affect our thoughts and feelings. While big decisions can feel overwhelming – and uncertain events scary – there will still be lots of other things going on in their life that may offer stability.

It may also help young people to remember that we’re usually much better at coping with negative events than we might think.

While a young person may worry a lot about what happens if they receive worse grades than they expected or they find their first months at a new college difficult, they’re likely to be surprised by how well they deal with the situation and move on from negative emotions. This can be a source of comfort when times are changing and uncertain.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers transformative recovery programs for young people, built upon the expertise of experienced professionals from around the world.

Our core elements of treatment combine specialist clinical care with education, community work, and an international gap year experience, supporting young people to create futures where they can grow and thrive.

We’re experts in treating eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, and other mental health conditions, implementing a trauma-focused approach that promotes meaningful healing and lasting change. We treat each young person as a whole, addressing co-occurring disorders simultaneously and helping them build the scaffolding for a resilient, fulfilling future.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to help. 

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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