You are here

Cognition About Affect: The Case of Affective Forecasting

15 January, 2016 - 09:15

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.

Key Takeaways

  • 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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. Outline a situation that you interpreted in an optimistic way and describe how you feel that this then affected your future outcomes.
  5. 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.


Antoni, M. H., Lehman, J. M., Klibourn, K. M., Boyers, A. E., Culver, J. L., Alferi, S. M., Kilbourn, K. (2001). Cognitive-behavioral stress management intervention decreases the prevalence of depression and enhances benefit finding among women under treatment for early-stage breast cancer. Health Psychology, 20(1), 20–32.

Argyle, M. (1999). Causes and correlates of happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Ayduk, O., Mendoza-Denton, R., Mischel, W., Downey, G., Peake, P. K., & Rodriguez, M. (2000). Regulating the interpersonal self: Strategic self-regulation for coping with rejection sensitivity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 776–792.

Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74,1773–1801.

Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-regulation and the executive function: The self as controlling agent. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Guilford.

Bodenhausen, G. V., Sheppard, L., & Kramer, G. P. (1994). Negative affect and social perception: The differential impact of anger and sadness. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 45-62.

Bonanno, G. A., Wortman, C. B., Lehman, D., Tweed, R., Sonnega, J., Carr, D., et al. (2002). Resilience to loss, chronic grief, and their pre-bereavement predictors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1150–1164.

Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2009). Optimism. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 330–342). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Chang, C., & Lee, Y. (2010). Effects of message framing, vividness congruency and statistical framing on responses to charity advertising. International Journal Of Advertising: The Quarterly Review Of Marketing Communications, 29(2), 195-220. doi:10.2501/S0265048710201129

Clark, M. S., & Isen, A. M. (1982). Toward understanding the relationship between feeling states and social behavior. In A. H. Hastorf & A. M. Isen (Eds.), Cognitive social psychology (pp. 73–108). New York. NY: Elsevier/North-Holland.

Clore, G. L., Schwarz, N., & Conway, M. (1993). Affective causes and consequences of social information processing. In R. S. Wyer & T. K. Srull (eds.), Handbook of social cognition (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54(10), 821–827.

Easterlin, R. (2005). Feeding the illusion of growth and happiness: A reply to Hagerty and Veenhoven. Social Indicators Research, 74(3), 429–443. doi:10.1007/ s11205-004-6170-z

Eigsti, I.-M., Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., Ayduk, O., Dadlani, M. B., et al. (2006). Predicting cognitive control from preschool to late adolescence and young adulthood. Psychological Science, 17(6), 478–484.

Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. A. (1992). Emotion, regulation, and the development of social competence. In Emotion and social behavior (pp. 119–150). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Garcia-Marques, T., Mackie, D. M., Claypool, H. M., & Garcia-Marques, L. (2004). Positivity can cue familiarity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 585-593.

Glass, D. C., Reim, B., & Singer, J. E. (1971). Behavioral consequences of adaptation to controllable and uncontrollable noise. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(2), 244–257.

Gross, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1997). Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106(1), 95–103.

Isen, A. M., & Levin, P. F. (1972). Effect of feeling good on helping: Cookies and kindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 384–388.

Isen, A. M., Shalker, T. E., Clark, M., & Karp, L. (1978). Affect, accessibility of material in memory and behavior: A cognitive loop? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1–12.

Ito, T., Chiao, K., Devine, P. G., Lorig, T., & Cacioppo, J. (2006). The influence of facial feedback on race bias.Psychological Science, 17, 256–61.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York, NY: Dover.

Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist 58: 697–720. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.58.9.697

Kahneman D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 49-81). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Keltner, D., Locke, K. D., & Audrain, P. C. (1993). The influence of attributions on the relevance of negative feelings to personal satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19(1), 21–29.

Kirchler, E., Maciejovsky, B., & Weber, M. (2010). Framing effects, selective information and market behavior: An experimental analysis. In B. Bruce (Ed.) , Handbook of behavioral finance (pp. 7-24). Northampton, MA US: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. London: Allen Lane.

Lazarus, R. S. (1984). On the primacy of cognition. American Psychologist, 39(2), 124-129. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.39.2.124

Lomax, C. L., & Lam, D. (2011). Investigation into activation of dysfunctional schemas in euthymic bipolar disorder following positive mood induction. British Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 50(2), 115-126. doi:10.1348/014466510X497841

Lucas, R. (2007). Long-term disability is associated with lasting changes in subjective well-being: Evidence from two nationally representative longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(4), 717–730.

Marinić, M., & Brkljačić, T. (2008). Love over gold: The correlation of happiness level with some life satisfaction factors between persons with and without physical disability. Journal of Developmental & Physical Disabilities, 20(6), 527–540. doi:10.1007/s10882-008-9115-7

Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106(1), 3–19.

Mischel, W., Ayduk, O., & Mendoza-Denton, R. (Eds.). (2003). Sustaining delay of gratification over time: A hot-cool systems perspective. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933–938.

Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247–259.

Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as a limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3), 774–789.

Oaten, M., & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 717–733.

Oatley, K., Parrott, W. G., Smith, C., & Watts, F. (2011). Cognition and emotion over twenty-five years. Cognition and Emotion, 25(8), 1341-1348.

Rivera, L. A. (2012). Diversity within reach: Recruitment versus hiring in elite firms. Annals Of The American Academy Of Political And Social Science, 639(1), 71-90. doi:10.1177/0002716211421112

Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: Effects of the sense of control. Science, 233(4770), 1271–1276.

Ruder, M., & Bless, H. (2003). Mood and the reliance on the ease of retrieval heuristic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 20-32.

Russell, J. A. (1980) A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161–1178.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2005). The influence of social hierarchy on primate health. Science, 308(5722), 648–652.

Savitsky, K., Medvec, V. H., Charlton, A. E., & Gilovich, T. (1998). “What, me worry?” Arousal, misattribution and the effect of temporal distance on confidence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(5), 529–536.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69(5), 379–399.

Schwarz, N., & Clore, G. L. (1983). Mood, misattribution, and judgments of well-being: Informative and directive functions of affective states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 513–523.

Slovic P, Finucane M, Peters E, MacGregor DG (2002) The affect heuristic. In: Gilovich T, Griffin DW, Kahneman D, editors. Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 397–420.

Small, D. M., Zatorre, R. J., Dagher, A., Evans, A. C., & Jones-Gotman, M. (2001). Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate. Brain, 124(9), 1720.

Strack, F., & Deutsch, R. (2007). The role of impulse in social behavior. In A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Guilford.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768–777.

Stepper, S., & Strack, F. (1993). Proprioceptive determinants of emotional and nonemotional feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 211–220.

Thompson, S. C. (2009). The role of personal control in adaptive functioning. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 271–278). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Tu, J., Kao, T., & Tu, Y. (2013). Influences of framing effect and green message on advertising effect. Social Behavior And Personality, 41(7), 1083-1098.

Vohs, K. D., & Heatherton, T. F. (2000). Self-regulatory failure: A resource depletion approach. Psychological Science, 11, 249–254.

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131–134.

Wilson, T. D., Wheatley, T., Meyers, J. M., Gilbert, D. T., & Axsom, D. (2000). Focalism: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), 821–836.