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 Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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