Why are we so bad at predicting what will make us happy?

Yesterday I posted about Kahneman’s distinction between two types of happiness and how that tied into Daniel Gilbert’s theory that we’re just awful at predicting what will make us happy.

Why are we so bad at it? Here’s one reason — we misremember our predictions:

Why do affective forecasting errors persist in the face of repeated disconfirming evidence? Five studies demonstrate that people misremember their forecasts as consistent with their experience and thus fail to perceive the extent of their forecasting error. As a result, people do not learn from past forecasting errors and fail to adjust subsequent forecasts. In the context of a Super Bowl loss (Study 1), a presidential election (Studies 2 and 3), an important purchase (Study 4), and the consumption of candies (Study 5), individuals mispredicted their affective reactions to these experiences and subsequently misremembered their predictions as more accurate than they actually had been. The findings indicate that this recall error results from people’s tendency to anchor on their current affective state when trying to recall their affective forecasts. Further, those who showed larger recall errors were less likely to learn to adjust their subsequent forecasts and reminding people of their actual forecasts enhanced learning. These results suggest that a failure to accurately recall one’s past predictions contributes to the perpetuation of forecasting errors. 

Source: “Why don’t we learn to accurately forecast feelings? How misremembering our predictions blinds us to past forecasting errors.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 139(4), Nov 2010, 579-589.

There’s a silver lining here: “…reminding people of their actual forecasts enhanced learning.”

Write down when something makes you happy. Write down when something makes you unhappy.

Trust those notes when making decisions about the future. Don’t trust your capricious mind.

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About Eric Barker