Pessimism and Emotional Forecasts

My favorite kind of pessimism is the snarky kind. Maybe that’s because it’s not really as starkly pessimistic as I typically feel it’s worth being, or maybe it’s because I feel like snark is the best way to give blind optimism a critical kick.*

And yet the pessimists protest that it really is all bad, that the world is really going to end any day now, and all I can do is get a laugh out of Frank Turner in his song “1933” warning, “don’t go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn.” If you’re going to mope, at least do it poetically – I’ll toast to that.

There’s a concept in psychology called “affective forecasting.”** It basically says our emotions creep into our outlook and cause us to extrapolate whatever our emotional bias is forward into time.

Affective forecasting describes how we map our current feelings onto our futures selves, which to the pessimist, makes Lily Tomlin’s saying, “things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse,” extra resonant. Eeyore’s “oh bother” would be another classic pessimist’s example.

Yet another way to think of it, is that pessimists pre-experience future misery, optimists pre-experience future joy, and everyone uniformly has less than perfect accuracy. What we miss is our own ability to adapt and reassess our present experience, whatever it may be, in its entirety.

Imagine how happy a new car would make you, or how bad you’d feel if you got seriously injured. Now, recognize that each of these events are singular. Recognize that there’s a whole lot of life going on around a new car or an injury. We will assimilate whatever cards life proverbially deals us, so long as we’re still alive to play the hand. No matter what happens, we will adapt in some way, because that’s what we do.

When we apply now to later instead of thinking of later as later, we risk being focused on an individual tree, and losing sight of the forest. We forget to place the detail in context.

We don’t think about how many French fries our kids will lose in the seats of that new car, or how that injury might make us refocus other aspects of our lives on more important details. We forget the additional upsides and downsides of real life.

Visualize affective forecasting as a boat cutting through otherwise placid water, where we’re trying to predict the size of the wake it’s going to leave behind. No matter how small or how big we think the wake is going to be, that lake is going to return to its placid state. We tend to forget the reality of an “affective wake” rippling away as the lake returns to normal. Those waves tend to be far shallower and shorter lived in the grand scheme of things than we think they’ll be.

Maybe right now is like 1933. Maybe things will get worse, but then again, maybe they won’t. Maybe the real reason I appreciate snarky pessimism over stark pessimism is that once you get humble about the future, you spend a lot more time in “right now.”

I’m Ok with that.

*It also could be the heavy diet of The Simpsons and other slacker-humor that made up my teenage entertainment diet.
**For more on affective forecasting, listen to the recent “Choiceology” podcast where Dan Heath explains “How tomorrow feels today,” and/or read the paper over at Charles Schwab by Mark Riepe called, “Affective Forecasting: Can You Really Know Your Future Self.” 
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