The Psychology of Thinking About the Past and Future

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Information about The Psychology of Thinking About the Past and Future

Published on November 23, 2010

Author: chrismartin76



Covering Recent Research on Immune Neglect and Affective Forecasting; the Planning Fallacy; and Counterfactual Thinking.

The Psychology of Thinking About the Past and Future Covering Recent Research on Immune Neglect and Affective Forecasting; the Planning Fallacy; and Counterfactual Thinking. This Presentation Includes Discussion Questions

Kahneman and Tversky Born: Haifa, Palestine 1937-1996 Born: Tel Aviv, Israel 1934- Their first jointly authored paper, "Belief in the Law of Small Numbers," was published in 1971

“ As I came closer to [the SS soldier], trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting ” Daniel Kahneman on the roots of his interest in psychology:

“ When I was 18, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live past the age of 50.” Daniel Kahneman at the age of 66:

Immune Neglect and Affective Forecasting

Daniel Gilbert Harvard University Timothy D. Wilson Univ. of Virginia et al.

Got his law license at W&M First Author Mary Poppins Austin Powers’s Dad James Bond Perry Mason

I might actually learn something by going down to the local community college and taking a course in writing. After all, as a high school dropout, not only had I never had a writing course, I wasn't a particularly good speller. So I got on the bus and I went down to the local community college. By the time I got down there, they said the course on writing was full. It had been a very long bus ride, so I said, "Alright, fine. What's open?" They looked and they told me, "Psychology." I thought, T hat's got something to do with crazy people; maybe I'll write a story about a crazy person some day.  I told them to sign me up. Video:

People are less adept at estimating the duration of an affect.

Misconstrual Inaccurate Theories Motivated Distortions Undercorrection Focalism Immune Neglect


Study 1: Looking Down Lonely Street Study 2: Life After Tenure Study 3: The Politics of Happiness

Participant overestimated the duration of their negative affect and they did this dramatically and consistently more than the duration of their positive affect.

Immune neglect may have been at work, but…

Negative events may have been far from neutral. Positives ones may have been close to neutral. We know that losses are generally experienced as larger than gains, even when they are objectively equal (Kahneman & Tversky)

What if we have two conditions? 1. The negative affect is ameliorated 2. Not so much

Hurting People in a Laboratory and Separating People with Negative Self-Views (Studies 4-6)

Study 4: The Hurting Machine (Computer vs. Human Personality Feedback) Study 5: Just Death (Make all participants feel bad; Blameworthy vs. Blameless) Study 6: Failure, Inc. (0 minutes + 10 minutes)

Participants who didn’t expect negative feedback predicted they’d feel equally bad a few minutes after receiving it from a fallible or infallible source. But they felt better in the fallible source condition.

Forecasters believed they’d be equally upset after reading both stories, but experiencers who read the blameworthy story became less upset than those who read the blameless story.

Contrary to their predictions, participants felt they’d feel equally bad after a job rejection on the basis of fair or unfair decisions, but this was not so, especially 10 minutes afterwards.

And yet we neglect the immune system because…

First, events that are potentially averse are also potentially appetitive. Second, forecasters may not look ahead because being aware of immunity might paradoxically suppress immunity. Third, if people were aware of how well immunity works, they might not be motivated to take preventive action.

More Research

Individual Differences Immune neglect in affective forecasting Michael Hoerger, Stuart W. Quir, Richard E. Lucas, Thomas H. Carr Journal of Research in Personality 43(2009), 91–94 Author studied coping strategies. Those reporting greater use of emotional processing coping strategies recovered more effectively from losses, but failed to foresee this when making predictions, leading to increased bias. This is the first study to document individual differences in immune neglect.

Evidence for the hypothesized pattern of correlations between coping styles and the impact bias for football losses (Boerger, et al.)

Belief-Transmission Model "If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be helped by an increasing number of minds...False beliefs, like bad genes, can and do become super-replicators... False beliefs that promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.” – Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling Upon Happiness

How to Make Better Predictions "The experience of a randomly selected individual can sometimes provide a better basis for predicting your future experience than your own imagination can.” – Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling Upon Happiness

But We All Like to Think We’re Unique

(Or at least above average)

Discussion Questions About Immune Neglect

Concerns Is asking participants how happy they are really a good measure of overall well being? What is another way they could have measured happiness that might have given a more accurate picture of how the people were really doing? Should they have measured other emotions as well? What about physiological measurements? Although voters appear to have a more vested interest in the outcome of elections, does Gilbert et al.’s second study portray an ecologically valid situation in which most Americans would feel is personally relevant and would therefore feel the negative consequences as much as a breakup or being denied tenure? What about the death of a loved one? How are personal relevance and saliency important?

General Happiness In psychology we often emphasize the importance that single events (such as the death of a family member or divorce) can have on an individual's life. The articles states on page 618, "Most people are reasonably happy most of the time, and most events do little to change that for long". Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

Individual Differences Adolescence is characterized by higher impulsivity and more frequent emotional highs and lows than adulthood. Would teens be more susceptible to durability bias than adults and be more likely to overpredict the extent of their affective responses to future events? On p. 636 the authors propose people’s inability to correctly predict their feelings after a negative event but not positive events may be because negative events are consistently avoided but positive events are not. Would this imply that people with high openness to new experiences—being less avoidant—are more accurate predictors than people with low openness?

Risky Behavior What does the immune neglect article tell us about risky behavior? Are people less likely to engage in behaviors with a potential for failure, simply because they expect the negative affect to last longer than it actually will? How can we inform people and train them to know this? Would they be more likely to undertake entrepreneurial behaviors with potentially big gains on one hand and big failures on the other if they know that failure would not be as problematic as it seems initially?

Planning Fallacy

Dale Griffin and Michael Ross Based on Buehler’s doctoral dissertation Roger Buehler Simon Fraser University, now at Wilfrid Laurier University Univ. of Waterloo



People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times

Although aware that previous predictions were overly optimistic, people believe their current forecasts are realistic.

Study 1: Optimistic Time Estimates Study 2: More Typical Task + Measure of Confidence Study 3: Adding a Think-Aloud Procedure and Making Failure Salient

Study 4: Recall Condition vs. Recall- Relevant Condition Study 5: Social Prediction

In each study fewer than 50% of participants finished their tasks in their predicted time. Participants recall of the past is biased and its relevance diminished. But in an observer role, participants were overly pessimistic.

Research continues on: 1. The role of motivation, and 2. The consequence of optimistic estimates

More Research

Peetz, J., Buehler, R., & Wilson, A. E. (2010). Planning for the near and distant future: How does temporal distance affect task completion predictions?  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 709-720 .  In contexts that elicited a focus on planning, individuals predicted earlier completion times for close than distant projects. In contexts that prompted a focus on obstacles, individuals predicted later completion times for close than distant projects. Buehler, R., Peetz, J., & Griffin, D. (2010). Finishing on time: When do predictions influence completion times?  Organizational Behaviour and Human Decison Processes, 111,  23-32 . Manipulated predictions affected completion times of closed tasks, defined as tasks carried out within a single, continuous session but not of open tasks, defined as tasks requiring multiple work sessions. This implies that task completion predictions help to initiate action, but their impact diminishes over the course of extensive, multi-stage projects. Peetz, J., & Buehler, R. (2009). Is there a budget fallacy? The role of saving goals in the prediction of personal spending.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin ,  35 , 1579-1591.  First, participants tended to underestimate their future spending. They predicted spending substantially less money in the coming week than they actually spent or than they remembered spending in the previous week. Second, the prediction bias stemmed from people’s savings goals—defined as the general desire to save money or minimize future spending—at the time of prediction. Planning Your Dissertation Planning How to Spend Your Meager TA Salary. Good luck with that.

Discussion Questions About the Planning Fallacy

Other Factors in Estimating Time What is the role of distracting events? When do they exert influence and when not? Maybe people are accurate about deadlines because they are less likely to cave in to distraction.

Correlates and Individual Differences Would the temporal proximity of the deadline affect the accuracy of people’s completion time predictions? Would people be more or less likely to make optimistic predictions if their deadline was 6 months away (as opposed to a week away)? Outside an experimental setting, are people more likely to be accurate in their predictions if a deadline is sooner rather than significantly later (and perhaps seemingly more personally relevant)? When participants recalled concrete past experiences, absolute accuracy did not improve, such that some participants were overly pessimistic and some overly optimistic. What personality traits might covary with these differences? What could differentiate the foolish mistake-makers from their more accurate counterparts? Would chronic procrastinators be more or less prone to the planning fallacy than those who don’t tend to procrastinate much?

Counterfactual Thinking

Constructing alternative versions of the Past


Neal J. Roese Psychology Marketing Northwestern University


Constructing alternative versions of the Past

Both Beneficial and Aversive

Upward Counterfactuals Downward Counterfactuals Better than reality Even worse

Related to Social Comparison Theory (Festinger)   Motives that are relevant to comparison include self-enhancement, perceptions of relative standing, maintenance of a positive self-evaluation, closure, components of attributes and the avoidance of closure (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990; Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2002). Upward : Affect-enhancing tendency in which people note their similarity to “higher” people. Or when people need motivation for improvement. Downward : Defensive tendency in which people look at “lower” people in order to feel better off.

Negative Affect Activation Consistent with Approach- Avoidance principles Closeness And More efficient to focus on Minor Finetuning

Norms which are Content Determinants deviated from

Exceptional Outcomes Come from Exceptional Antecedents And Normal Outcomes from Normal

People mutate Actions after success But Inactions after Failures

People focus on Actions in the Short Term But Inactions in the Long Term

People focus on The Controllable Rather than the Uncontrollable



Co nt ra st E ff ec ts Occur when a standard is juxtaposed

Co nt ra st E ff ec ts Affect Greater monetary compensation to the victim’s family when he had nearly made it to safety than when he died 75 miles away Judgment

Causal-Inference Effects Link antecendent to outcomes within the counterfactual

Causal-Inference Effects Affect Judgments of Blame Judgments of Hindsight Expectancies and Intentions

Implications Functional (mostly) Tied With Coping and Adjustment Maximized in Controllable Situations

For More Look at research by Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA Dan McAdams, Northwestern Univ. Laura King, Univ. of Missouri

But Wait…

Another Roese Study From 2010

Four experiments explored whether 2 uniquely human characteristics—counterfactual thinking (imagining alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to create meaning in life—are causally related…. Counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences …. Through counterfactual reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived from important life events. From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning. (2010) Kray, Tetlock and Roese

Discussion Questions About Counterfactuals

Concerns Is the fact that “the issue of the everyday accuracy of causal judgments per se has not been satisfactorily addressed in attributional research in general” a cause for major concern considering that  counterfactuals rely on accurate causal judgments?

Correlates How might locus of control relate to counterfactual thinking? Are people who believe that they have no control over their fate less likely to engage in counterfactual thinking? The author states that certain situational factors (fatal near misses) would be likely to evoke downward counterfactuals (alternative is worse than actuality). What individual differences could correlate with downward counterfactual thinking or counterfactual thinking in general? What belief systems may be worth considering? And Belief Systems And Other Individual Differences Locus of Control

The article mentions "outcome closeness", where people are more likely to engage in counterfactual thinking when they perceive themselves as having missed a goal by a small margin. Does this match with your own experiences? Are there any advantages to focusing on far misses instead? The benefits depend upon how accurate the content is. “If I would have studied more for the test, I could have done better” is more accurate than “If the teacher was not out to get me, I would have done better”. How often do people form accurate counterfactuals, and what influences accuracy? Accuracy Far Misses Advantages and Costs

Counterfactual thinking regarding traumatic events is one of the hardest cognitive processes to correct in individuals who suffer from PTSD. How might this tendency to hang onto counterfactual beliefs be affected by a belief in a just world or the desire to make inferences for future action? So is there an appropriate level of counterfactual thinking that will lead to benefits? Would a person who excessively ruminates about what could have been miss the beneficial lesson to be learned or try to overcorrect in a way still causes failure? With regard to depression, how would an individual break the positive feedback loop between negative affect and counterfactual thinking? Depression PTSD

Conditions The Roese review of literature regarding counterfactuals summarizes counterfactuals usage without exploring limitations that would otherwise restrict counterfactual thinking. How could cognitive load and attention impact the generation of counterfactuals?

Similarities What are the differences and similarities between counterfactual thinking and ruminating over past experiences?

Predictability, in large part, is what turns play into work. Like a path that is fully visible, known outcomes engender tiredness at the outset, so game quickly becomes chore. – Elizabeth Farrelly, Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness

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