Another way in which our cognition intersects with our emotions occurs when we engage in affective forecasting, which describes our attempts to predict how future events will make us feel. For example, we may decide to apply for a promotion at work with a larger salary partly based on forecasting that the increased income will make us happier. While it is true that we do need money to afford food and adequate shelter for ourselves and our families, after this minimum level of wealth is reached, more money does not generally buy more happiness (Easterlin, 2005). For instance, citizens in many countries today have several times the buying power they had in previous decades, and yet overall reported happiness has not typically increased (Layard, 2005).
Psychologists have found that our affective forecasting is often not very accurate (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). For one, we tend to overestimate our emotional reactions to events. Although we think that positive and negative events that we might experience will make a huge difference in our lives, and although these changes do make at least some difference in well-being, they tend to be less influential than we think they are going to be. Positive events tend to make us feel good, but their effects wear off pretty quickly, and the same is true for negative events. For instance, Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) interviewed people who had won more than $50,000 in a lottery and found that they were not happier than they had been in the past and were also not happier than a control group of similar people who had not won the lottery. On the other hand, the researchers found that individuals who were paralyzed as a result of accidents were not as unhappy as might be expected.
How can this possibly be? There are several reasons. For one, people are resilient; they bring their coping skills into play when negative events occur, and this makes them feel better. Second, most people do not continually experience very positive or very negative affect over a long period of time but, rather, adapt to their current circumstances. Just as we enjoy the second chocolate bar we eat less than we enjoy the first, as we experience more and more positive outcomes in our daily lives, we habituate to them and our well-being returns to a more moderate level (Small, Zatorre, Dagher, Evans, & Jones-Gotman, 2001). Another reason we may predict our happiness incorrectly is that our social comparisons change when our own status changes as a result of new events. People who are wealthy compare themselves with other wealthy people, people who are poor tend to compare themselves with other poor people, and people who are ill tend to compare themselves with other ill people. When our comparisons change, our happiness levels are correspondingly influenced. And when people are asked to predict their future emotions, they may focus only on the positive or negative event they are asked about and forget about all the other things that won’t change. Wilson, Wheatley, Meyers, Gilbert, and Axsom (2000) found that when people were asked to focus on all the more regular things that they will still be doing in the future (e.g., working, going to church, socializing with family and friends), their predictions about how something really good or bad would influence them were less extreme.
If pleasure is fleeting, at least misery shares some of the same quality. We might think we can’t be happy if something terrible were to happen to us, such as losing a partner, but after a period of adjustment, most people find that happiness levels return to prior levels (Bonanno et al., 2002). Health concerns tend to decrease subjective well-being, and those with a serious disability or illness show slightly lowered mood levels. But even when health is compromised, levels of misery are lower than most people expect (Lucas, 2007). For instance, although individuals with disabilities have more concern about health, safety, and acceptance in the community, they still experience overall positive happiness levels (Marinić & Brkljačić, 2008). It has been estimated that taken together, our wealth, health, and life circumstances account for only 15% to 20% of well-being scores (Argyle, 1999). Clearly, the main ingredient in happiness lies beyond, or perhaps beneath, external factors. For some further perspectives on our affective forecasting abilities, and their implications for the study of happiness, see Daniel Gilbert’s popular TED Talk.
Having reviewed some of the literature on the interplay between social cognition and affect, it is clear that we must be mindful of how our thoughts and moods shape one another, and, in turn, affect our evaluations of our social worlds.
- Our current affective states profoundly shape our social cognition.
- Our cognitive processes, in turn, influence our affective states.
- Our ability to forecast our future emotional states is often less accurate than we think.
- The better we understand these links between our cognition and affect, the better we can harness both to reach our social goals.
Exercises and Critical Thinking
- Describe a time when you feel that the affect heuristic played a big part in a social judgment or decision that you made. What impact did this heuristic have? Looking back, how sound was the judgment or decision that you made and why?
- Outline a situation where you experienced either mood-dependent memory or the mood-congruence effect. What effects did this then have on your affect and social cognition?
- Describe a situation where you feel that you may have misattributed the source of an emotional state you experienced. Who or what did you misattribute the arousal to and why? In hindsight, who or what do you think was the actual source of your arousal? With this knowledge, outline how the emotion you experienced at the time may have been different if you had made a correct source attribution.
- Outline a situation that you interpreted in an optimistic way and describe how you feel that this then affected your future outcomes.
- Describe an instance where you feel that your affective forecasting about how a future event would make you feel was particularly inaccurate. Try to identify the reasons why your predictions were so far off the mark.
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