About five years ago I wrote Affective Forecasting to talk about some of my feelings about human beings inability to predict how they are going to feel in the future. I concluded that the best predictor of how we will feel in the future is how we feel right now because we have a baseline level of functioning that our brain will work to restore any time we move away from it. There are a few exceptions to this, chronic pain or becoming locked into a mental cycle that re-ups suffering, but almost everything else will be habituated quickly and allow us to return to whatever psychological state reflects our “normal.”
I recommend you give the original post a read or a reread before you continue this one. It covers some of my own experiences, the experience of some people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and some of the experiences that my clients have had while working towards their fitness goals and after having achieved them. Without fail, NO ONE was correct in their prediction about how they would feel when the future becomes the present.
In the half decade since I wrote the post, I have had a lot of different experiences, consumed a lot of information, and draw almost the exact same conclusion. How you feel right now is very likely going to be how you feel in the future. If I had to bet on it, I would put the odds at around 98%; we will return to the 2% later. The big difference between then and now, in terms of how I think about the subject, is that I know a lot more about why we get affective forecasting so wrong.
Life is very complicated, so the brain has come-up with a variety of ways to make living more efficient. Generally speaking, the brain needs certainty that it is populated with a world view that reflects reality well enough to allow it to make accurate predictions. This certainty serves to reduce cognitive overhead simply because it prevents the brain from cycling on the unknown. While this is more of a narrative explanation than a neurological or biological one, and it does introduce a few assumptions in order to avoid tackling the hard problems of consciousness – for example, is the cycling the result of uncertainty or is the uncertainty the result of the cycling – the outcome is the same, uncertainty is exhausting and “knowing” is mentally a lot easier than not knowing, even if the knowing is not based on any evidence.
The brain creates processes to help manage the information flow. Many of these processes function with almost complete perfection. There is a relationship between the amount of real world experience the person has, practice, and the quality of the process. The more hands on practice a person has, the better their brain will be at making predictions or guesses about a particular thing. This is what one would expect because it is the manifestation of how the brain functions optimally – physical experience with the real world is evidence and the greater the amount of evidence, the larger the memory pool the brain can draw from in order to make predictions.
These processes are created automatically and unconsciously in response to stimulation flowing into the brain. You are almost powerless to stop it from happening. In a way, the brain is innately programmed to write code to optimize the handling of the influx of information of a particular type under a specific context. And this is a very good thing! It is empowering to know that all you need to do in order to become an expert at something is to pay very close attention to what is going on while you are doing the thing and to practicing it consistently over a long period of time. By paying deep attention, you will maximize the in-flow of sensory data which will cause the brain to adapt more completely to the stimulation. Over time, the neural networks that support the most efficient way of dealing with the data will grow dense and allow for the automation of nearly perfect ways of responding.
So far so good, but things begin to fall apart when the processes are not based on a lot of real world evidence or practice. Processes that are formed with insufficient information and fail to have predictive accuracy are called cognitive biases.
If we stop now and consider the world from which the brain evolved, we’ll notice that it was a complicated world, but that it was very small in terms of the diversity of things that a living being would be exposed to. It consisted of doing the same ten things each day – finding food, finding water, finding shelter, finding security, getting sleep, staying warm, protecting family, establishing connections to other living beings, maintaining social connections, and teaching the young or ignorant the skills needed to satisfy the other nine needs. Life was hard, and the experience of living was a binary flip flop between periods of satisfaction and an immediate need to satisfy something. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was, and the living beings just did what they had to continue to survive. NOTE – I left out reproduction as one of the ten things because without the ten, reproduction was a liability that was more likely to reduce the chances of survival than to promote it.
The level of abstract thought that was involved with living and surviving was low. Most of what happened ACTUALLY happened, so the creature engaged the real world in a physical way. This is the definition of evidence and the brain is perfectly suited for this type of environment.
But this is no longer the world that human beings live in. Our world is much more complex than before, and the abundance of this complexity is abstract in nature. Most of what we know doesn’t spontaneously exist in nature. It’s real, but not really real. It is the consequence of some creative insight that just happened to be deemed as valuable or rewarding enough by other human beings to get picked-up, shared, and spread throughout various sub-groups of the population. Those who did not have the information did not understand, want or even consider it. Those who did have it would use it to their advantage, and would likely use it against those who didn’t have it. Not necessarily in a direct way, although sometimes, but in a way that gave them an advantage. The consequence was that those who had more information would do better than those who had less.
Writing and reading, farming, and tools are examples of this. Writing and reading are very similar to teaching, but their creation eliminated the need for the teacher and student to actually spend one on one time together, and it allowed for the teacher to teach hundreds or thousands of people in one shot thus making the process exponentially more efficient and creating the opportunity for the standardization of knowledge about a subject. Farming was very similar to gathering food from the wild and hunting, but it allowed for people to concentrate their efforts onto a much smaller well defined area which reduced the labour cost per unit of food. Tools allowed people to perform more work with the same amount of labour which reduced the cost of the work. These three technologies – writing and reading, farming and tools – represented a way for people to do more of what they were already doing. They were advances that created an abundance of resources that groups were able to use to make their lives easier. They were abstract ideas or novel ways to accomplish existing goals with greater ease or efficiency.
The consequence to abundance is that everything expands, which leads to a massive increase in the amount of information that is available or known and the propagation of this information. At some point, the world in which most people lived no longer resembled the world from which their brains had evolved. The software was fine for small groups who had ten things to do over and over and over again, but it wasn’t really ready for whatever modern society was becoming. Gone were the days of direct hands on daily experience and practice, which allow for the creation of nearly perfect processes. Here were the times of indirect mental practice with abstract things that don’t actually exist in the real world. Consider traffic lights for a moment. We have a good understanding of them, but what would happen if someone who had never seen them was placed into the driver’s seat of a car that was approaching a red light (assuming that they know how to drive a car). There is a set of rules that govern the behavior of cars at traffic lights and without knowledge of these rules, things could get dangerous and ugly. Regardless of how effective and helpful these rules are, they only exist in the minds of the people who know what traffic lights are, and they only exist because someone invented traffic lights as a solution to a problem. They do not exist in the ocean and the wildlife in the forest have no need to them.
This brings us to cognitive biases. Our brain is very effective at creating mental processes that govern and control things that it has had ample sensory data for, the predictive accuracy of these process is dependent upon the verification of these predictions. Without this error correction, a process will not evolve and improve. Thinking about the traffic lights, the rules governing traffic light behavior are abstract but they are easily and consistently verified and validated. There are very few accidents with intersections (when compared to the number of cars that travel through an intersection) and much fewer with them when compared to non-controlled intersections. There is an abundance of sensory information available that is transmitted and received by people allowing their brain to create a near perfect rule concerning them.
This is not the case with most things in modern life. While there is an abundance of sensory information available about any specific topic, there are millions of topics meaning that there are probably billions of possible pieces of information to know. A billion of anything is too much for the brain to handle so it means that it will ignore practically everything. At best, it will create a sufficient set of rules that are well tested and accurate that will provide professional expertise, a set of social rules that are well tested to ensure coexistence with other people, and lot of mental processes that have not been tested but are accepted as being valid. These are cognitive biases, and human beings have shared patterns of thinking that result in the formation of a fairly consistent list of cognitive biases.
It is important to mention that this does not have to be the case in theory, and is likely the consequence of our need for certainty. Those who are innately fine with uncertainty or who have trained themselves to always assume that there is always going to be something that they need to learn about every subject and to be curious and seek out this information are much less susceptible to making decisions that are based on cognitive biases. They will either admit that they do not know and will find out or they will take the time to learn and experience enough evidence in order to correct the processes and boost their predictive accuracy.
Five years ago, I was less aware of what I didn’t know and the role this void was having on my life. While I had noticed that I wasn’t very good at affective forecasting, I hadn’t taken much time to consider why that was the case. I was also aware that the same was true for my clients – they were only temporarily happy or satisfied when they achieved a hard earned goal and would quickly return to normal. My noticing this was why I had started to suggest to them that that they track in on their reasons for seeking my help vs. the outcome they were hoping to achieve. How someone identified that they were physically weak and needed to improve their strength was more important than knowing that they wanted to become stronger because two cognitive biases impact the perception of the future when it comes to physical transformation – the optimistic bias and the planning fallacy.
The optimistic bias basically has a person believe that things will be easier and will result in better outcomes than they will. The planning fallacy has a person believe that things will progress more quickly and result in faster outcomes than they will. These two things work together and, as a result, we are lousy affective forecasters. Things take longer and are never as good as we believe they will be.
By tracking in on the specific reason why a person realized that they were not physically strong, the focus is shifted away from imagined perception of what the future will be like and onto the reality that they’ll be able to do the thing that caused them difficulty. They will have a reference point for how bad they felt at the beginning and this can be leveraged to contrast to their life today. It can be used to motivate them to notice that even though things are moving much more slowly than they had anticipated, they are getting better as they move further and further away from the moment when they realized they were physically not strong.
Now I know this because I noticed it in myself and in others because I had been lucky enough to have the experiences that allowed me to see it occurring. This motivated me to say something about it and to then seek out the reasons WHY it was the way it was. This is the reason why we engage the help of experts. They do not suffer from the same cognitive biases, at least not in the same way, as we do. They have taken the time to be uncertain and to then seek out the evidence to update their processes to make them more accurate. After having done all of the work, they do not make the same mistakes that the rest of us do and they are actually in a position to help guide us through the experiences that we need to have in order to get what we want.
With all of this being said, my 98% guess at the odds of someone getting their affective forecasting wrong should now be becoming clearer. It’s the perfect storm of a number of factors.
The first is that we do not have a good set of rules or processes set-up when it comes to doing something that we have never done before. This opens the way to the impact that cognitive biases can play.
The second is that we are generally not very open to new information and will rely on our gut feeling and hunches to guide us vs. any objective assessment of what happened before or what is the more likely outcome. This fact needs to be understood completely because it is part of the same problem I was alluding to when I mentioned that the brain does not do well with uncertainty.
Feelings are not the same things as thoughts. Both are related to and will influence each other but they are very different things. Feelings are, for the most part, the brains way of alerting us to a memory that we have about the past that was significant. The nature of the emotion will reveal information about the memory that can provide context or other background information. The reason for this is very straight forward, the brain is very effective at gross single trial learning and can condition a very specific emotional reaction, in terms of the chemicals that make it up, to something that happens. The conditioning is very general and tends to be void of most of the contextual clues that reveal exactly what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done differently to avoid the situation. But it is a strong association and sufficient enough to trigger the release of the same chemicals whenever the brain perceives the same or a similar event. If a particular loud sound preceded something frightening, the brain will learn to release the same chemicals in the event that it hears or perceives the same sound in the future. On the very extreme side is post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause a returning war veteran to become extremely anxious or panicked when they hear a loud bang from a truck, a door slamming, or something on television. Their brain has done such an effective job at conditioning a sudden loud sound to a sympathetic nervous system response that this response will be triggered even when the person is well aware that they are in a completely safe context. This type of learning is extremely sticky and may last for decades afterwards.
Given that feelings have a real life experience aspect to them and the fact that they occur BEFORE we become consciously aware of their causes, they have a characteristic of having always been there, at least in the moment and before we take any time to reflect on what is going on, and of being very important. Both of these things are true, at least from a historic point of view. It makes a lot of sense to prime the body for a fight or flight series of actions as quickly as possible the moment the brain senses a threat. In fact, a very good case can be made that those individuals who had a tendency to be primed for action even before they were conscious of the need for action, were in a much better position to survive when a legitimate thread presented itself. It is entirely probable that a part of our operating system evolved to favor type one errors and to instantly react as opposed to waiting for validation, which promotes the likelihood of a type two error. It is better to be wrong and live than to be certain and die. It you think about it, the last person to respond to a real threat has the greatest chance of being the one who has to deal with the threat directly because they will be the last one to start running away. There is almost no cost associated with running away when you don’t need to and a huge advantage to being the first one to run when you have to.
So feelings are important, and they played a big role in keeping our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce. Paying attention to them and reacting to them is an innate part of the code that runs our operating system. But much like the nature of information that we were tasked with handling – the ten things that we needed to do every day in order to continue to survive and how our skill level with them was earned through direct experience with the physical world – our present environment is very different from the one that shaped our brains. A lot of the code is fine, but some of it doesn’t apply to the same extent or at all in modern life. A full on fight or flight response is something that will never be needed by most of us. The world is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be and now most of the things that will kill or damage us can very easily be avoided with a little bit of thinking.
I cannot say that the emotional system is antiquated or that our gut feeling should be ignored, but I will say that we have a very good reason to slow things down a little bit and to allow the source or probable source of an emotional reaction to surface before we take any action or commit to any view about the correctness or wrongness of something simply because the gut weighs in on it. The truth is that the gut is based on previous experience and we do not have instant access to the exact memory that shaped the feeling or conditioned the emotional reaction. If the conditioning was formed based on inaccurate information or under a general context and not a very specific one, the gut feeling cannot be trusted to be correct. Better decisions will become possible when we take the moment to think about things and to ensure that we do not make either a type one error OR type two error. It is possible that we will be able to take the time to figure out what the correct answer is or to lean into the uncertainty for long enough to allow logic and statistics to bring forward probabilities.
Of course, this will not happen when we go with the gut and act without thinking. And this contributes to our profound inability to accurately predict how we will feel in the future. Our initial feeling that “I’ll feel very happy when I get the body that I have always desired” or “that I will feel sad if I find out that I have a terminal illness” are gut reactions to thoughts about a potential future. They are not based on what IS and are therefore suspect. It’s true that you might feel temporarily happy and temporarily sad but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that you’ll simply return to baseline and feel the same way you feel right now.
It is our lack of openness and a misplaced reliance or trust on feelings that prevents us from taking in the information and having the experiences that are needed to eliminate cognitive biases. Education and experience is the antidote to them simply because these are the things that the brain needs to create, shape, and refine the mental processes that allow us to make accurate predictions about the world.
The final factor that contributes to our poor affective forecasting is that very little ever changes. Staying alive is a very difficult task and almost all of our mental effort is directed towards sustaining life. We are oblivious to most of this effort and tend to only become aware of the things that require us to move in order to satisfy – we get thirsty or hungry, we feel cold, we feel pain, etc. – and that is about it. Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.
The end result is that most of what we are and how we experience the world will remain as it is and as it has always been for us REGARDLESS of the things that we achieve. Everything regresses to the mean eventually. No matter how happy you are right now, if it is at a higher level than normal, you can be certain that it will not last. And as much as that is a tough pill to swallow, the opposite is also true. If you are less happy right now than normal, it won’t last and you’ll be back to normal after a while. In fact, regression to the mean is so prevalent in terms of affect that practically everything we do will have no impact on the mean simply because most of what we do is done automatically and without conscious awareness or intervention. Life is just that difficult to maintain that the ninety percent of our actions and thoughts are controlled by the brain and it doesn’t waste much effort adjusting to the things we believe that we want.
I’m going to stop this article here and post the second part of it next week. It covers what you can do to improve your affective forecasting and suggests an alternative to trying to predict your future emotional state.