We don’t realize that our minds get used to this stuff

In addition to having hedonic adaptation, we also don’t realize that we’re going to have hedonic adaptation. We don’t realize that our minds get used to this stuff. And this is a particular thing that messes up our predictions because we think the happy things that we seek out are going to make us happy for a long time and, maybe even more insidious, we don’t realize that if bad things happen.

We’re just not going to be that affected by them very soon. So we go back to our cat example, and the reason I chose this meme, in addition, is the fact that it’s funny because there’s a cat and lots of hot dogs where the bottom part where he’s like, “I believe I am going to enjoy this.” This cat really believes that if he continues eating hot dogs, 6, 7, 8, 9, whatever, that the sixth or seventh hot dog is going to give him as much happiness as that first one. And I think it’s funny, the cat, but we all have a little bit of the cat in us. We think these things that we buy, we think when we buy the new iPhone, we think we get into this new relationship, we think when we get into Yale, that we’re going to maintain the same level of happiness, but we’re just not. This is an illusion. And it’s an illusion not just for this cat and his hot dogs. It’s an illusion for when we think we’re going to have the perfect job that we really love, we’re going to get this awesome stuff, or we’re going to get in this awesome marriage or we’re going to get into Yale. We think this is going to be there, but it’s not. And if we realize that, we might be a lot happier. And so there’s a word for this that Dan Gilbert and his colleagues came up with. They call this bias the impact bias, and this is the idea that we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of things in two ways, both in terms of their intensity and in terms of their duration. We think they’re going to be better than they’re going to be at the moment we get it and we think that it’s going to last longer than it really does. You saw one of these, the intensity part in the context of a study that I’m going to say one more time, because it’s so important to remind you guys of, it has to do with grades. Remember this study about predicting how badly or happy you’re going to feel if you get a grade that’s better or worse than you expect? So if you get a grade that’s higher or lower than you expect, how will you feel on this 9 point scale? Here’s what students actually predict: If it’s higher than you expect, on a 9 point scale, you’re going to be an 8.

If it’s what you expect, you’re going to be almost 8, but if it’s worse than you expect, boom, you’re going to drop all the way down to 4.4. What is it really? It’s basically exactly the same the whole way down. It’s like not really different than you like really care about it. And so why am I telling you that? This is the case where we’re misspredicting the intensity of own reactions. We predict that we’re going to be super happy if we get a grade that’s higher than we expect. Even worse, we predict we’re going to be really, really depressed and really sad if we get a grade that is worse than we expect. But, in practice, we’re just not that messed up. We also are messed up in terms of misspredicting the duration.

We think that events are going to last. They’re going to affect us way longer than they actually do. And this prevents us from taking certain actions in the world that would make us happy or not or it may be risky. There might be a bad outcome. We think it’s going to affect us a lot and for a long time, but it kind of just doesn’t. And so here’s another example that’s close to home, sort of, because it involves residential colleges, but it’s residential colleges not here at Yale. It’s at that other school, at Harvard. Some of you may know that at Harvard, or at least at the time the study was run, you find out which residential college you’re in during your freshman year. So you just learn like you’re in this residential college.

They don’t know when they first get there, at least at the time of the study. And what they asked is you know you’re going to find out tomorrow that you’re in like either a super good residential college like Adams house, which is the best house on our campus, or you’re like in a super crappy one. Like you’re like in Mather or like your quadded, which is like the terrible thing at Harvard. Right? And they asked like how are you going to feel? In fact, how are you going to feel one year later? Like a year later, you’re stuck in this crappy residential college. How bad is that going to be and how people predict and predict on a 7 point scale? And what do you find? Well, here’s the graph of what people predict. So they predict if I’m in the Siliman at Harvard, which is the best residential college obviously, then it’s going to be awesome.

Like on my 7 point rating scale, a year from now, I’m going to be a 6 because it’s going to be awesome. If I’m in Franklin or like Styles or whatever, one of the not so good colleges, then my happiness is going to be half of what it could have been. Right? What is it actually a year on? It’s indistinguishable. We think these things are going to last for ever. Probably at the moment, you find out you got into a crappier one. You’re kind of like, “That’s a little crappy.” but like after that moment, everything else takes over. And this graph is awesome because I think it shows one of the things I worry most about our missed prediction, which is that, yeah, we have this impact biased for positive things. We predict it’s going to be awesome.

It’s not as awesome as we expect, but we have way more of an impact bias for negative things. We think this is going to destroy our lives to be in this crappy residential college. We’ll only be at half our happiness potential. But it just doesn’t nearly do it as much as we think. The impact bias we have for negative predictions is much worse than we think. And so just to give you a couple extreme examples. One of the spots where researchers have looked at this, I think because researchers care a lot about this being academics, is our predictions about getting tenure, right? So as you know, most of the junior faculty here will find out if they get tenure. Some will get tenure and then they have a job forever. Others will be denied tenure and they predict that their whole life will be over. They have to leave Yale, find a new job, etc. And so Gilbert and colleagues actually asked professors to predict how happy are you going to feel if you get tenure and how sad or are you going to feel if you don’t get it. And so here, they find you get tenure predict, “I’m going to be super happy.” You don’t get it you’re like, “Oh, this is going to be terrible.” What do you actually find? It’s just like you guys with grades, you’re like slightly over predicting for how happy you’re going to be if you get it.

But you’re really under predicting how happy you’re going to be when you’re denied. This is not as bad as you think, right? Maybe you guys can’t relate to getting tenure. So here’s another example that might be more salient to you. What if you go through a horrible breakup? You really thought you’re going to be with this person for a long time but you break up in a long term relationship. You’re both predicting something about the intensity of how bad this is going to be and its duration. Are you right? Paul Eastwick and colleagues looked at this and it turns out you’re wrong. Here’s your prediction of distress. So bigger bars are more happiness. Here’s what it actually is like. Basically, every point, if I asked you, how about 6 weeks in? How about 10 weeks in? You’re just off in your predictions. You’re just way better. You’re way happier than you expect even with this negative event. How about a really extreme negative event you might think.

So you go in for a routine test at DOH. You decide to get an STD test and you find out that you are HIV positive. Like this is something that you might all predict is going to really mess up your life and decrease your happiness for a long time, right? Here we have some famous examples of this. We have Charlie Sheen who found out he was HIV positive, and I love this next headline like from 11 months later. He says that how he’s doing. He’s doing excellent. It’s like he’s having the best time of his life even though he’s HIV positive. You might think that’s just because Charlie Sheen’s like a little bit off like normal people would be really messed up by this, but why is it really? Well, Steve and colleagues actually did this. They actually looked at people’s predictions of their HIV test results and what people actually feel at the moment they get the HIV test results. And so you predict before and after. Here’s the predicted for a negative result. I think this is around out of 100, basically on the scale they use. So you predict like you’re going to be pretty mid-range happy if you get this and it’s distress. So bigger numbers are worse and you predict that if you get a positive result, you’re pretty much at like max distress possible of finding out you’re HIV positive. Right? What are the actual results?

Well, they’re less good than you think and they’re way less bad than you think. I mean this isn’t like the best day of your life when you find out you’re HIV positive. But it’s not nearly as bad as we think. And in fact, this is just the moment that you find out. If you look a year later, the results even even out even a bit more. So even the most horrible things, we are not good at predicting. And you might say maybe this is just because we don’t get to do this all the time. Like if you think about the worst things in your life, your break ups or finding out you’re HIV positive or something, it doesn’t happen that much that these horrible things happen to us. So maybe we don’t predict well because we just don’t have that much experience with it. Maybe if we had more experience with horrible things happening to us, we would be like, “You know, horrible things happen to me. They ain’t so bad.” And so Aiden and colleagues actually did a cool thing.

They found this strange case where horrible things happen and they might repeat happened to try to see do people get better at reducing their impact bias over time. And they looked at kids, teens facing a driver’s exam. Because, as you know, some of you may have had, “I had this experience too where I failed once.” like you can sometimes fail multiple times in a row before you get it. And so you’re predicting like, “How happy am I going to be if I pass.” But you might have had the experience of predicting, you’re going to be really upset if you fail. And then you fail, then you weren’t that upset. Maybe you update over time. And so that’s what they did. They actually looked at teens’ forecasts of how happy they’re going to be if they fail the driver exam and if they fail multiple times are they more accurate as they fail more and more.

And so here’s a graph of predicted and actual happiness, and you are seeing basically what we’ve seen on a million other graphs, which is that people are predicting that they’re going to be really low on happiness but their actual happiness is really high. But that’s if you’ve never had a previous test before that’s a classic impact bias. Question is does the impact bias get lessened if you fail the number of times before and had the experience? The answer is no. Every single time you fail, you still mispredict the next time that you’re like, “This time I’m still going to be really upset if I fail.” and you’re just not. We don’t get better at impact bias as we get more experience with it, which is kind of sad. And so there’s this question about we’re not getting better at it but why are we so bad at this? What is messing us up? Why can’t we see how resilient we’re really going to be? And again, we have Dan Gilbert and colleagues who came up with these like fantastic psychological biases that he talks about and these are pretty profound and they’re ones that you can actually work on to get rid of these biases. The first of these is what he calls focalism. And this is the idea that we think about our predictions about an event. We tend to think about just one thing about those events, forgetting everything else that could happen in our lives right. So let’s take an example. Like tomorrow, you get a DUH. You do your routine STD test and you find out you’re HIV positive. And you’re like, “Everything in my life is going to stop.” And I say, “A year from now how are you going to feel?” What are you focusing on? You’re like, “I am HIV positive.” That is the thing you’re focusing on, “Everything in my life is going to stop.” But a year from now, what’s really happening to you? You’re going to classes. You’re hanging out. You’re thinking about summer jobs.

You’re eating really good cupcakes in the dining hall. Your life is filled with all this stuff that’s not your HIV status, right? It’s just not going to mess you up as much as you think. This is focalism. We focus on this one thing. We ignore all this other stuff. And this is the misprediction. This is what focalism is. When you focus on the one thing, you mispredict. So when you’re predicting about your own happiness levels, like if you get a job or you do something, think not just about that moment but think about the stuff surrounding it. Like okay, that’s how happy you’re going to be if you get this internship. You really want this summer but what else is going to happen around it? There’s still going to be rainy days. There’s still going to be all this stuff. Same thing with the bad stuff. If you’re predicting like how bad you’ll feel if you take this class that’s kind of risky and you get a bad grade, think about the stuff around it. You’re going to have other grades. It’s going to be the summer, you’re going to move off, you’re going to rationalize why you get that bad grade, all that stuff. And that last part about rationalization gets us to the second bias that causes these mispredictions, and that’s what Dan Gilbert calls immune neglect. And this is his idea that we are sometimes unaware of the power of what he calls our psychological immune system. What does he mean by this? He means that we just have this tendency to adapt to and cope with negative events. We’re actually just pretty resilient. We’re actually a lot more resilient than we like to think sometimes. So the fact of the matter is we actually don’t like when sucky things happen to us.

Our minds don’t like to feel really awful and we have lots of mechanisms for feeling better when we feel really awful. Let’s say we have a breakup. Do you just like sit there and bemoan the breakup? No. Your friends will take you out and you go get a scream or you go on the internet and look at pictures of puppies. We are not trapped in this horrible event that happens. We have lots of resilience to get over things. This is true with bad grades,too. Yes, it’s a bad grade, but you move on. You go out with your friends. You’re not stuck in this focus. You have mechanisms to make yourself feel better and you engage in those mechanisms much more so than you realize. And we have a set of powerful ones to get ourselves out of thinking that we are a bad person or things are really awful when bad things happen. We can rationalize and we give ourselves reasons and we find meaning. We do all these things because we have a whole suite of psychological traits to force ourselves to feel better. The crazy thing is we don’t realize we have these. We’re constantly forgetting how resilient we really, really are. And that means we’re mispredicting, and this is why I think this annoying feature is one of the most insidious ones because it means you guys don’t know how powerful and how resilient you are.

And this is the thing that worries me most about your generation, which in discussions, like this book Excellent Sheep, and all these things have been talked about in terms of being not very risk seeking. I think you’re scared about negative outcomes and negative feedback even more as folks have claimed than other generations. And this bias is maybe the result of this. You’re scared to take on these things. And what we know about you from psychology research is you’re just going to be fine. If you take that risky class and you get a crappy grade, you’re gonna have all these mechanisms to not feel as bad, as much bad, or as long bad as you think. If you go risky and you try to apply for a risky job and you don’t get it, you’re just going to be a lot better than you think. And so this is the bias I worry about most because it means you’re mess predicting your own potential in these ways that are kind of