Why do we overestimate our emotional reactions to future events?
Impact Bias, explained.
What is Impact Bias?
The impact bias refers to our tendency to overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to future circumstances. This occurs when we incorrectly predict how severely an event will impact our emotional state, imagining a stronger and more lasting emotional impact than we actually experience.
Where this bias occurs
Imagine you’re planning a dream vacation to a sandy beach somewhere. You believe this trip will bring you immense happiness and long-term satisfaction. However, when you eventually leave on the trip, you realize your happiness is not as intense or long-lasting as you had envisioned. In reality, your dream adventure comes with the inevitable inconveniences of travel. From crowds and unexpected weather to jet lag and sunburns, you face several minor setbacks on your vacation. While you still have an enjoyable time, you’re disappointed that you did not experience the immeasurable happiness and blissful relaxation you had expected.
Debias Your Organization
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The impact bias affects how we make decisions about our health, finances, personal relationships, and professional lives. When we make decisions, we weigh our future emotional reactions—a process known as affective forecasting.1 From choosing where to go for dinner to contemplating a major career change, we select the option we think will bring us the most happiness. This can cause us to make impulsive decisions without considering the potential consequences or drawbacks of our choices.
At the same time, we assume negative events will impact us more severely than they really do. This is because we overlook how quickly we can adapt to uncomfortable situations. For example, when faced with a future event that seems stressful, like going for a job interview, we anticipate feeling more anxious than we wind up feeling. In scenarios like these, underestimating our coping abilities can cause us to avoid behaviors, habits, or actions that would benefit us in the long run.
This all boils down to the same result: we make poor decisions when we think our choices will have a significant impact on our emotions. Perhaps this means you stay in a bad relationship too long because you think you’ll be unhappy for months following the break-up. Or maybe you buy a brand-new car with the expectation of long-lasting happiness, just to experience disappointment and regret when the initial excitement wears off.
The impact bias can have a surprising effect on people’s satisfaction with policies and public infrastructure. In one study, researchers explored what people thought about the public transportation in their city.2 They discovered that car users were more satisfied with public transit after a trial period than they initially thought they would be. This study has some important implications for public officials. Encouraging the public to make lifestyle changes, like taking public transit instead of driving to work, can be challenging when people assume the change is going to impact them more negatively than it does.
Organizations can also struggle with the impact bias, particularly when managing employee satisfaction. For example, when an employee anticipates a promotion, they might expect a greater improvement to their work-life than they experience, leading to dissatisfaction when reality falls short. On the other hand, employees may overestimate the negative impact of organizational changes, causing them to resist changes that could improve employee satisfaction in the long run.
On a societal level, candidates and campaign strategists must be aware of the potential of the impact bias to affect public opinion. A 1998 study revealed that individuals who supported the losing candidate in an election overestimated how unhappy they would be one month after the election.3 If voters supporting the losing candidate overrate the negative impact of election outcomes, they might become disengaged from the political process.
How it affects product
The impact bias can also influence product design and development. In the same way that we miscalculate how we will react to future events, product designers can misjudge how people will react to their products. As a result, designers often prioritize a product’s most exciting features while overlooking features that users actually want.
Consider a team of developers working on a new e-learning platform. If the design team overestimates the enthusiasm users will have for fun features like gamified quizzes and real-time progress tracking, they could overlook long-term usability challenges. For example, learning platforms require regular content updates to keep users engaged. If the developers neglect this, their platform might face challenges when scaling to accommodate new courses in the future.
As a result of the impact bias, consumers also overestimate their long-term satisfaction with new purchases. Expecting a new product to significantly impact their happiness, people are disappointed when they discover a product’s shortcomings. This can lead to returns, disputes, and even credit card chargebacks. If you’ve ever bought a fitness tracker thinking it would motivate you to work out, you know what we’re talking about! All those stats about your health may be interesting, but they do little to help you get moving—you still need to put in the work. This is why many people abandon their fitness trackers within a few months.
Impact bias and AI
The impact bias can even influence how we perceive AI. If we expect AI to work flawlessly, we risk overestimating the capabilities of current AI systems. For example, many companies have adopted AI tools for recruiting and evaluating job candidates. Some even use AI to automate interviews! Too often, business leaders are eager to replace HR jobs with these AI recruiting tools to increase efficiency and reduce bias. But thanks to biased data, AI can also become biased. When we assume these recruiting tools are perfectly objective, we overlook the possibility that AI bias can result in discriminatory hiring practices.
Why it happens
As we touched on earlier, the impact bias occurs as a result of affective forecasting. This refers to how we predict our future emotions—a process that’s prone to error. In a 2005 paper, Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert explain two of the main explanations for the bias: focalism and sense-making.1
Focalism explains how we focus on a single future event while overlooking all the other things that will happen in our lives around the same time—things that will also influence our happiness and likely moderate our feelings. Think about how buying a home means taking on new costs and responsibilities. These drawbacks quickly balance out the initial thrill of becoming a homeowner.
We also fail to recognize how quickly we can recover emotionally from negative events. This is known as immune neglect.3 When we encounter a new event, our brains move through a sense-making process, applying meaning to what we’re experiencing. We may have an intense emotional reaction at first, but quickly rationalize what is happening. Once we understand the event, we start to feel better almost immediately. We forget to consider these coping abilities when making predictions about our future emotions.
In another study in 2003, Timothy Wilson, Jay Meyers, and Daniel Gilbert found that people also experience a retrospective impact bias. We overestimate the emotional impact of past events on our happiness.4 Unfortunately, this explains why we do not learn from our previous experiences and, as a result, fail to make corrections to our future predictions.
Impact bias may be adaptive
Other researchers have suggested that the impact bias has adaptive significance, driving us toward our goals.5 Although the impact bias sometimes prevents us from making the best decisions, it can also help us avoid risk and pursue rewarding behaviors. Anticipating strong emotions as a result of certain decisions can motivate us to act in a way that benefits our well-being. More detailed studies are needed to better understand these mechanisms.
Why it is important
The impact bias plays an important role in our decision-making process, driving us toward choices that will make us the happiest. However, as mentioned above, focusing on how we will feel in the future can cause us to overlook the risks or benefits of a given choice. As a result, we may choose the option with more drawbacks just because we think it will make us happier than the alternative. By acknowledging that your emotional predictions may be inaccurate, you’ll have an easier time making decisions that will benefit you in the long run, like ending a bad relationship or leaving a job that provides comfort but lacks fulfillment.
At the same time, understanding the impact bias can help you prepare for disappointment when reality falls short of your expectations. This knowledge can even save you from buyer’s remorse—remember, the thrill of that new car will fade faster than your GPS signal in a tunnel.
In an organizational context, recognizing the impact bias is essential for leaders who want to improve employee satisfaction. Leaders who understand how the bias can influence employees’ emotional reactions can plan smoother transitions when granting promotions or enacting new office policies. It’s all about keeping those expectations in check!
How to avoid it
Research suggests that reducing focalism (our tendency to focus on a specific event) can help us avoid the impact bias. In other words, thinking about other future events or activities, rather than fixating on one, helps us acknowledge their collective influence on our future emotions. Studies show that people moderate their emotional forecasts when they think more broadly about their upcoming experiences.6 The goal here: widen your focus!
Viewing your future through a wider lens isn’t the only way to make more accurate emotional predictions. When you’re thinking about the outcome of a future event or decision, consider your ability to cope if things don’t go as planned. Remember, your brain will try to make sense of negative events to reduce their emotional impact. This happens automatically, so you’ll just have to trust your brain on this one.
Surprisingly, reflecting on how you felt during similar past events may not be helpful. Such reflections can actually fuel the bias, as we tend to exaggerate the emotional impact of previous experiences. Instead, research suggests that thinking about your worst experience can help you make more moderate predictions about your future emotional states.7
How it all started
Psychologists Daniel Gilbert, Timothy Wilson, and several colleagues introduced the concept of impact bias in a 1998 paper on durability bias and affective forecasting.3 In a series of six studies, researchers demonstrated the tendency for people to overestimate the impact of negative events. They examined the bias in several scenarios, including the breakup of a relationship, an electoral defeat, and rejection by a prospective employer.
By studying how people thought they would react to these negative events, the researchers sought to discover the accuracy of our predicted emotional responses. As mentioned, this is important because people often make decisions based on which choice will bring greater emotional rewards. Not only that but people also weigh how long these feelings are expected to endure when making decisions.
The study revealed that people are unaware of the cognitive mechanisms that moderate our negative emotions (immune neglect). As a result, people predicted long-lasting emotional reactions to negative events.
Example 1 - How impact bias promotes exaggerated emotional expectations in test-takers
Affective forecasting and impact bias have been studied in several contexts. In one 2007 study by Ayton, Peter, and colleagues, researchers explored why people make exaggerated predictions about their future emotions.8 In the study, they had driving test candidates predict how they would feel if they failed the test. The participants who failed the test overestimated the duration of their disappointment, forecasting that they would feel disappointed for longer than they really did.
Surprisingly, having more experience with this situation didn’t make people better at predicting their emotions. Test takers who had previously failed their driving test were not any more accurate at predicting the duration of their disappointment compared with those who were failing for the first time. Clearly, learning from our previous emotional experiences is difficult!
The researchers also noticed that, after the test, people thought they had a lower chance of passing the test than they did before. This is a great example of how we use sense-making to cope with negative emotions. To make sense of their failure, the test takers determined the test was more difficult than they initially thought.
Example 2 - How impact bias causes sports fans to overestimate their post-win joy
In another study by Wilson and colleagues, researchers asked college football fans to predict how happy they would be after a football game if their school won.6 Before making these predictions, some participants were given a questionnaire where they rated how much time they would spend on different activities in the days following the game.
The football fans who completed the activity questionnaire predicted that their happiness would return to normal levels more quickly compared with those who did not complete the questionnaire. These results support the idea of focalism. The football fans who were not asked to think about their future activities likely focused too much on the impact of the football game. On the other hand, those who thought about what else they would be doing recognized the moderating effects of these other activities and made less extreme predictions about their happiness.
What it is
The impact bias is our inclination to overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional responses to future events. Our actual emotional experience tends to be more moderate than we expect.
Why it happens
The impact bias occurs when we predict our future emotions, a process known as affective forecasting. Focalism, our tendency to fixate on a single future event, blinds us to other factors that will moderate our emotions. We also overlook our own resilience, underestimating our ability to recover from negative events and the speed at which we adapt to new experiences.
Some researchers argue that the impact bias is adaptive, nudging us towards our goals. Expecting an intense and lasting emotional response can motivate us to pursue positive behaviors and avoid risk.
Example 1 – How impact bias promotes exaggerated emotional expectations in test-takers
A study on driving test candidates found that people tend to overestimate the duration of their disappointment after failing the test. Even experienced candidates failed to accurately predict their level of disappointment, emphasizing the difficulty of learning from our past experiences.
Example 2 – How impact bias causes sports fans to overestimate their post-win joy
In another study, college football fans predicted more intense levels of happiness following the victory of their school’s team when they were not asked to think about their future activities. Those who thought about what they would be doing in the days following the game made more moderate predictions about their happiness. This highlights the role of focalism in amplifying our emotional expectations.
How to avoid it
Avoiding the impact bias starts with acknowledging your own limitations when it comes to predicting your future emotions. Don’t reflect on how you felt during similar experiences in the past—you’re likely to overestimate the impact of these previous events as well. Surprisingly, reflecting on your worst experience could help you make more realistic predictions.
At the same time, avoid fixating on the future event. Broaden your focus. Consider other future events that will occur around the same time and how these will contribute to your emotions. If you’re anticipating a negative event, leverage sense-making. Remember, your brain will try to make sense of new experiences to help you cope.
Related TDL Articles
Affective forecasting, also known as hedonic forecasting, refers to how we make predictions about our future emotional states. People tend to make errors in affective forecasting, engaging in focalism (thinking about events in isolation) and immune neglect (overlooking our ability to cope). These errors lead to inaccurate predictions about the emotional impact of future events.
The affect heuristic highlights how emotions shape our decisions. We tend to prioritize our feelings over concrete information when making decisions, which sometimes leads to suboptimal choices. Our current emotional state can distort our predictions about the emotional consequences of future decisions, contributing to the impact bias.