Do People Misestimate Their Future Reactions?

When someone is asked to predict their emotional reaction to a future, hypothetical event, they usually underestimate how they will respond, according to previous research. However, a new study, led by Heather C. Lench of the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University, suggests otherwise. “In past research the tendency to neglect context when predicting future emotions, called focalism, has been shown to result in overestimation of future emotion,” said Lench. “In the present investigation, we address the possibility that people’s distress in this situation may actually be more intense than they predict because they fail to account for how the context of the party will focus their attention on the negative event.” The way someone predicts their emotional state impacts nearly every decision they will make. “Thus, people should make better decisions and spend their time and resources more effectively if they can anticipate the intensity of their future emotional reactions.”

In two separate studies, Lench examined emotional prediction. For her first study, she asked participants to guess how they would feel if they suffered a romantic heartbreak on Valentine’s Day, or one week before. For the second study, she asked them to imagine they lost a game that resulted in forfeiting a prize that was in view, or a prize that was hidden from them. “In Study 1, students whose romantic relationship had recently ended experienced more intense negative emotion than anticipated if they reported their emotions on Valentine’s Day but less intense negative emotion than anticipated if they reported their emotions 1 week earlier,” said Lench. “In Study 2, participants overestimated their disappointment about losing a game if the prize was discretely hidden but underestimated their disappointment if the prize was sitting attractively before them.” The results demonstrate that the accuracy of one’s prediction is directly related to the amount of focus they put on the context of the situation. Lench added, “Thus, forecasts are not inherently biased in the direction of overestimates or underestimates; rather forecasts are frequently inaccurate when the context surrounding the event increases or decreases the attention allocated to the event.”

Lench, Heather C., Martin A. Safer, and Linda J. Levine. “Focalism and the Underestimation of Future Emotion: When It’s Worse than Imagined.” Emotion 11.2 (2011): 278-85. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lola


    November 24th, 2011 at 2:41 PM

    I totally agree with this! We completely underestimate how things are going to affect us until bam! They hit us and a lot of times it takes us off guard and we are surprised by our own reactions to the situation. That does not necessarily make it bad, it just is funny how we always think that we are going to be able to remain calm under pressure and then something takes us by surprise and we don’t really know how to handle it the way that we thought.

  • Sharon


    November 25th, 2011 at 12:08 AM

    Underestimate or overestimate-but it will never be accurate.Because my reaction to a situation would depend upon a million things and unless those things are in the present,I will not be able to estimate my reaction accurately.And what is the purpose of finding out things like these-I dont see any advantage.

  • Sammie


    November 25th, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    It’s funny- it is kind of like you don’t know what you have lost until you are actually looking at it dead on, and that is when the disappointment of losing it would hit you hard. Talk about winning a car, and that is kind of intangible, but to be so close to it in person and then lose it, then the disappointment is gonna come rushing right out.



    November 25th, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    How am I to predict my future reactions to something?Even the same things could evoke different reactions at different times so I wouldn’t know how I would react in a hypothetical situation…!

  • helen


    November 26th, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    I would like to get tested because I think that I have always been pretty spot on in knowing how I was going to recat to something that came up.

  • Will


    November 27th, 2011 at 5:49 AM

    Underestimating disappointment when the prize is visible-sounds like me.I would rather not have something in my sight and not get it rather than have it within my sight and still lose it.Its a basic human thing-to want something in front of you and being disappointed when you lose it. Not knowing what it was is actually better in such a situation.

  • nellie


    November 27th, 2011 at 6:29 AM

    Doesn’t matter anyway. What is the big deal about predicting how you are gonna react to something? Not gonna know, and it is not like you can change it anyway

  • jermaine b

    jermaine b

    November 27th, 2011 at 11:17 PM

    nellie:hey,it can b beneficial 2 a professional cud assess u by askin hw u wud reaact 2 a situation r somethin and also u can prepare 4 a future event by askin urself things bout d future..

  • Trey S

    Trey S

    November 28th, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    We all kind of like to think of ourselves as being one way. And then the reality hits us. You know it is easy to make predictions of what you might want to do in the future but it is kind of hard to say for sure how it would be until you are actually in the moment. I know lots of people who would nominate themselves for sainthood right now because of how they assume that they are always going to do the right thing, but I think that we all know how that is going to turn out. Yeah it is great to know yourself and to have an idea about how certain things are going to affect you but that is really no firm guarantee that this is what is to be in the future.

  • Claudia


    November 29th, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    Some people can be right about their future reactions.But I guess most of us cannot do that.We need to know ourselves thoroughly to be able to predict future reactions.And I for one certainly cannot!

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