How our flawed imaginations lead us to bad decisions and what we can do about it
Have you ever vowed not to drink again while you were hungover and then promptly forgotten this promise to yourself in a few days? Or maybe you enthusiastically agreed to some engagement when it was months away but dreaded going when the hour actually arrived? If you did, you are not alone: these examples show how we routinely and systematically mispredict our emotional response to future events and as a result make bad decisions in the present. One of the deepest sources of dissatisfaction in our lives is ruing past decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time but now make us doubt our thinking. Like good parents trying to do the best for their children, we do what we think is best for our future selves. Unfortunately, our future selves behave more like ungrateful children who not only question the choices their parents made but also blame them for everything that is wrong with their lives.
Humans are probably the only species that consciously plans ahead and takes most actions with an eye to achieving future goals. For instance, we go through the pain of exercise so that we can stay fit and live longer, not because it necessarily satisfies an urge we have right now. Furthermore, thinking of the future not only lets us enjoy moments before they happen (the excitement of an upcoming vacation, for example) but also helps us prepare mentally for undesirable events. In a sense, this ability to visit the future is baked into the very definition of being human. However, not all is hunky dory. As the opening examples demonstrate, we routinely and predictably fall prey to the shortcomings of imagination and end up with undesirable consequences.
In his brilliant book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert covers the many follies we commit while predicting our future emotional states and how these lead to suboptimal decision-making in the present. It’s a sobering look at our mental shortcomings and provides useful pointers on how to avoid them.
I. The filling-in and leaving-out trick
One of the biggest breakthroughs in human thought was the realization that reality is not the same as what the senses perceive. Rather, what we perceive of the real world is a reconstruction by the brain and not the objective truth itself. That is why different events are experienced differently by different people. In the same vein, we don’t remember past events as they exactly occurred. Rather we just recall some key highlights that were stored originally and weave a narrative around them, with details filled in as required by the brain. The important point is not that the brain is doing this but that we are totally unconscious of the fact. As Gilbert writes:
‘We tend to forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected.’
A similar filling-in trick is played by the brain when we imagine the future. When asked to imagine a scenario, we quickly zero down on an ideal one and rarely stop to consider the details of the future we are imagining. For example, if I ask you to imagine that you are sipping a cocktail on a beach somewhere, it’s highly unlikely that you would ask me ‘which beach’ or ‘what cocktail’; you would instantly visualize the scene in your head. This is essentially the brain doing what it does best — creating vivid imagery with what it knows about beaches and cocktails, without getting your conscious self involved. But this is exactly where the problem lies, because when we are trying to predict our emotional response to an imagined future, the details matter. That cocktail wouldn’t sound as good when you’re sitting on an overcrowded beach and drinking from a plastic glass. Mistaking ideal scenarios for accurate representations of the future is only half the problem; the actual issue is that we believe that more easily we can imagine a scenario, the more likely it is to happen. Thus, a failure to consider the details can lead us to make faulty decisions and then face the disappointment of facing a future that is different from what we had imagined.
Imagining a future that is only one among the many possible is one thing, but failing to imagine one that could actually happen is something else entirely. When certain details escape our attention while imagining a future, it is almost like we believe they won’t happen. An all too common example is how we underestimate the time, effort and money it would take to complete projects because we don’t consider all the things that could go wrong. Sometimes, however, this bias can make us go to the other extreme by making us overweigh the impact of a single negative event in the future. This is perhaps why most cultures are intolerant towards failure because only the downside is emphasized; what is forgotten is that a setback can also make us wiser and more confident in our abilities to survive future setbacks.
The overarching point is that the details matter when we want to predict how we will feel in the future. If we are seeking an important goal, then we would do well to consciously define the outcomes we are seeking and not just rely on the brain’s automatic processes. An abstract future is an uncertain future; the onus is on us to give it the shape we desire.
II. Anchored to the present
Imagination is truly marvelous in its ability to take forward leaps in time, but mostly it doesn’t go far enough. In a sense it’s like the horse tethered and left to graze in a field — it can go as far as the length of rope allows but it can never break free. Similarly, our imaginations tend to stay tied to the present and are unable to shake free of its influence. As a result, our imagined futures look too much like the present and we often mistake our feelings right now for how we will feel in the future.
The reason for this attachment to the present has to do with specific limitations of the brain. To predict our response to possible futures, we just utilize our sensory system with a small, but important tweak — instead of taking inputs from the outside world, we utilize our memory to recreate the event in our heads. For instance, if asked to imagine winning the lottery, we would search our memories for what we know of lottery winners and the things we would like to buy, and create a specific image in our heads. Once the intended image has been created with memory’s help, we then react emotionally to that image.The problem arises when the brain has to make a choice between reacting to the present or to future imagery. Not surprisingly, the brain almost always prioritizes the present over the future because it (thankfully) gives more weight to opportunities and threats that are actually in front of us. That is why you buy fewer groceries when you go shopping with your stomach full — since your brain realizes that the body is sated, it makes it very difficult for you to imagine feeling hungry. This is also why people suffering from depression find it hard to see any promise in the future. When well-wishers talk about better times ahead, the depressed person does not find it convincing because she mistakes her present despondent state as a reaction to the future.
The second limitation is that it is plain difficult to think about time like we do for other, more concrete things. The abstract nature of time makes it difficult to think about it — we can easily imagine what might happen and how it might happen, but not when it will happen. To overcome this and predict our response to future events, we imagine how we would feel if the said event happens right now and then make an allowance for the fact that it will actually happen in the future. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, think again. If you know of the anchoring effect, you will realize why this strategy is fraught with error. Even if we correct our initial response to recreate the future scenario, we still end up reacting to a future that is too much like the present. As a consequence, we fail to adequately acknowledge that how we are feeling right now is not how we will feel in the future.
The downsides to basing the future on the present are straightforward: we pay attention to things that seem important right now but won’t be so in the future, simply because we will be different people then, with different priorities. It is tough work determining whether our emotions are in response to an imagined future or something in the present, but the effort is well worth it for its benefits: better decision-making now and less unpredictability in the future.
III. Stronger than you think
While imagination allows us to feel happy now about favorable events in the future, it also makes us anxious and fearful of undesirable possibilities. We are known to consistently overestimate how bad we will feel about a negative event or for how long. We expect certain events, such as losing a loved one or experiencing a serious injury to shatter us completely, but we are much more resilient than we think. When we look at people who have experienced serious misfortune, we wonder how they manage to live normal lives, because to us the impact of a hugely negative event should crowd out every other experience life has to offer . However, there is enough proof that people who are affected are able to pick up the pieces and move on with the business of living more often than not. For instance, consider the following finding cited in the book:
‘Chronically ill and disabled patients generally rate the value of their lives in a given health state more highly than do hypothetical patients who are imagining themselves to be in such states.’
This powerful, but mostly unknown revelation is down to how we perceive reality. Unlike animals, we do not react to objective stimuli out in the environment but to the subjective image we create in our heads based on that same stimuli. That is why no two people see or experience the same situation the same way. This inherent ambiguity in our perception allows the brain to construct explanations that are most favorable to our mental well-being. In other words, faced with a choice on how to interpret an experience, the brain chooses to put on rose-tinged glasses. This is especially true when a potential experience becomes a real experience — for example, once we have already bought something, we tend to rate it higher than we did before. This way, we can feel content in our decision-making and not be racked by guilt.
Essentially, we have something like a psychological immune system (PIS) that protects us from unhappiness the same way the physical immune system defends against disease. When faced with an undesirable situation this system creates a narrative that makes us feel better, usually by shifting the blame to others or selectively viewing facts. However, a delicate balance is always maintained between reality and illusion so that even though we are saved from being crushed by a negative experience, we feel bad enough to acknowledge the facts and do something about it. In other words, this system works best when it defends us from unhappiness but not too well. A system that tips over too much into illusion (“Everyone else is wrong; “I’m the most deserving person”) is much like an over-enthusiastic physical immune system that turns on the body itself.
Ignorance of this self-defense mechanism makes us exaggerate how bad we would feel in case of an undesirable outcome. Almost counterintuitively, we are better placed to handle bigger setbacks because they trigger the psychological immune system, which then starts its work of putting a positive spin on the situation. Minor irritations, on the other hand, are not powerful enough to call for this backup, hence we remain bugged by them. Another consequence of being unaware of the PIS is related to the emotion of regret — we believe that taking an action leading to a bad outcome will cause more regret than not taking any action all. However, ask any adult what they regret the most and a majority would cite not having done something when they had the chance (starting a business, professing love, keeping in touch with friends, etc.) The twist in this tale is that an action, even if it leads to an undesirable outcome, can be countered by the PIS but an inaction is abstract because by its very definition, it did not occur. So, the PIS has nothing to work against and as a result it is unable to help us lessen the regret we feel.
Finally, the prospect of facing an inescapable fate and having no control over our circumstances is nothing short of a nightmare for us. But here too we get it wrong because as Gilbert quotes in the book:
‘We just can’t make the best of a fate until it is inescapably , inevitably and irrevocably ours.’
What this means is that the lack of choice could actually be a good thing because it’s exactly the kind of situation in which the PIS thrives. It has been empirically shown that even though we are ready to pay a premium for the luxury of changing our minds, this option leads to less happiness versus a situation where we have to just accept whatever option we’re given. When we’re stuck with something, we literally have no option but to make the best of it. This obviously does not mean that we should actively put ourselves in inescapable situations, but sometimes placing all our eggs in one basket might be a better strategy for happiness.
IV. Why we don’t learn from experience
Going through the litany of prediction errors listed here, it is natural to wonder whether with experience we learn to not to repeat the same mistakes. Surely after burning our fingers a few times, we become wise to these foibles of the human mind? The answer isn’t very flattering because the underlying causes are unconscious and deep-rooted in the the basic process of memory formation. As it turns out, experience does not automatically inoculate us against repeating the same mistakes.
The key feature of memory formation and recall is that the brain stores only the key highlights of an event rather than recording all details faithfully. At the time of recall, the event is recreated afresh using the stored highlights, with the brain filling in the rest to give the impression of an unbroken narrative. Therefore, which highlights are stored originally is critical to forming accurate memories. But therein lies the problem: the mind has a preference for unusual events and closing moments and is more likely to store them at the expense of other, more important details. So when the time to recall comes, these unusual instances are more easily retrieved thereby giving the impression that they are more common than they actually are. In other words, things labeled ‘most memorable’ edge out the things labeled ‘most likely’. As a result, we fail to get full benefit of our experience because in reality, it is the wrong experience.
More generally, we all ascribe to a self-created theory of how we ought to behave in specific situations. This theoretical view might not govern our emotions in the exact moment but is used to predict how we would feel in the future or remember how we felt sometime in the past. For example, if you have a certain political leaning, you would obviously predict being sad if your candidate loses the elections; also, when asked in the future how you felt when the election was lost, you would most likely say you were sad. The really twisted thing is that even though your prediction of the future and recollection of the past are consistent with each other, they might be at odds with the actual emotions you felt at the time of the event. This is because in both cases (i.e. in the past and in the future) you referred to your political bent as a guide to how you should answer, simply because you did not have direct access to the actual moment. Further, you might not even realize this gap because it all happens unconsciously. The net result would be a diminished ability to learn from experience.
A way out
All of us are prone to making wrong predictions about our emotional futures because of how our default wiring works. But that is not to say that improvement is not possible. Starting by understanding the errors that creep in and considering our choices a bit more deliberately, we can upgrade the quality of our decision-making. An even more powerful way to understand our reaction to future events is to just learn from people who have already been there. But despite its stunning simplicity, this idea is usually ignored because we place too much faith in our own uniqueness. We tend to believe we can learn little from others because our circumstances, experiences and world view are one-in-a-billion. Gilbert puts it best:
‘…if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.’
This is, however, a shame because learning from others is simpler and much more effective than relying on an error-prone imagination.
All said and done, imagination is a gift given to us by nature and shaped by evolution. It has allowed us to ascend the hierarchy of living things and change the course of the planet. However, at the level of the individual, it is still mostly used as a blunt instrument, with the result that we often do not like where our choices lead us. It would therefore serve us well to learn its limitations and wield its power thoughtfully. If nothing else, doing so might make our future selves look back at our choices with more empathy and understanding.