We are the only animal capable of contemplating its future, mentally moving through time and making present decisions so that, of all possible futures, it makes its way towards the imagined. In a way, we can learn from mistakes before we make them .
However, we don’t do it too well. Or, at least, not as well as we think.
It is true that we are excellent predictors when determining, for example, what the future of our skin will be if we sunbathe too much, or if we will suffer from a glut if we abuse a certain food. But if emotions are mixed with the fact judged, then our abilities to predict the future fail .
Happiness and unhappiness
Basically, our incompetence when it comes to forecasting our future is revealed when we try to dictate what will end up making us happier or more unhappy. What happens is that, despite often predicting our future hedonic reactions (“I will be happy when I make more money”, “I will never get out of sadness if my father passes away”), they are rarely confirmed , at least to the degree that the one we had foreseen.
Psychologist Daniel Gilbert is the author of numerous studies that always reveal the same bias: our errors in determining our future happiness are systematic. To do this, he has purposely asked people how they will feel when minutes, days, weeks, months, or years have passed after an event took place. Then after those lapses of time, you’ve measured how they really felt.
Virtually no one was right. Which is very significant because they were only asked about totally ordinary events, as Gilbert himself explains in John Brockman’s book The Best Decisions :
“We do not ask people to tell us how they will feel if the Martians invade us […] In most cases, we study events or situations that people have already experienced many times (situations in which I should be very expert ) and this makes this imprecision more curious and interesting. “
Gilbert emphasizes some particularly systematic errors. For example, most people predict that they will feel more dejected and longer after a breakup than they eventually will.
This inability is probably based on our exceptional adaptation to new situations. For example, we overcome our emotional breakup more quickly because when we think about such a situation we are in love with our partner. However, after a while after the breakup, we may meet someone who seems more interesting to us, or our perception of what we considered good changes and we no longer consider an ideal partner.
“What happens is that shortly after we have experienced something negative, unconscious processes are activated that begin to generate different ways of interpreting what happened.”
It is also common that, after a stroke of economic luck, we immediately adapt to this new condition. Therefore, we tend to overestimate the happiness we will feel when, for example, we win the lottery. One year after the event, our happiness will be very similar to what we had before.
In summary, our predictions usually reflect a single moment (or a few) of a single event (the burial of the loved one, loneliness, etc.), but a person’s happiness a year after the event will be influenced by much more than that particular event .