Affective Forecasting: State of the Union and Great Expectations

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Feb 11, 2013 3:50pm
gty 2012 state of the union address ll 130207 wblog Affective Forecasting: State of the Union and Great Expectations

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

What do affective forecasting and the State of the Union have to do with each other?  Stay with me for a bit, and I will try and show you.

Affective forecasting is a sociological term (much discussed by psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his book “Stumbling on Happiness“) that describes the human tendency to project forward how we might feel about an event or an impending decision in our lives.  It is one of the cognitive biases, which involves the idea that we have a tendency to forecast ahead that either a decision ahead is going to make us happy or an event will make us upset or angry.  Human beings tend to have unrealistic expectations, good or bad.  We overestimate the rewards or happiness brought by a future something, or the sadness or fear or anger it may bring.  Thus things don’t bring us as much happiness or sadness as which we forecast in our hearts and minds.

We decide we are going to get married to the “perfect” someone and we project that this will bring us great joy.  Reality can never match this projection so we are upset with the reality of the relationship as it unfolds.  Or we wonder why we didn’t see things at the beginning in the other person, or ask how could we could have been such fools to have been biased in our judgment.  Our happiness forecasting didn’t allow us to see the situation clearly for what it was.

And in contrast, when we have to make a decision with negative consequences, like leaving an unfulfilling job or relationship (getting a divorce!) we overestimate the negative ahead of this decision.  We think the logistics are going to be a lot worse than they actually are, or the pain involved will be so tremendous that we don’t know if we can survive.  Many times this negative affective forecasting unfortunately causes us to stay in these unfulfilling jobs or relationships too long or forever.  Most of us learn that if we make these tough choices, the negatives are not nearly as big as what we forecast.  We learn through experiences that the highs and lows of life are not nearly as big as we project.

Check Out More ABC Coverage of the 2013 State of the Union Here

As President Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address, laying out where he wants to lead the country, this affective forecasting also is in play.  President Obama is going to speak about the economy and foreign policy and many other issues, and a large number of citizens listening and watching will interpret the State of the Union address through a prism of the affective forecasting bias.

Democrats who are supporters and fans of the President Obama will react with joy to what he says, and believe what he wants to do will bring great prosperity to the country.  Even in the chamber during the speech, Democrats will stand and applaud, believing that great things will happen in the coming year.

Republicans who dislike the President will have the opposite reaction.   They will sit on their hands in the chamber and grimace in reaction to many of the President’s ideas and plans.  They and many Republicans project that great peril will come to the country and the United States will be a much worse place because of what the President is saying and planning.

The truth is that neither one of these groups is likely to be right. They have forecast forward both unrealistically positively and negatively about the effect of the President’s goals.

For Democrats, the President is not likely to meet their expectations and they will end up a bit disappointed.  Things won’t be as awesome as they emotionally think will occur.  He may do good things, but it won’t be the forecast high they are unknowingly setting up.

And for Republicans things won’t be as bad as they think.  The country won’t be going to hell in a hand basket because of his policies.  Yes, some of his policies may have a negative consequence, but the lows won’t be as low as they think.

Students of affective forecasting say the answer, as we watch the State of the Union, is for all of us to try and leave our biases behind, and see things as realistically as we can.  Republicans would be better to understand the journey of our country is bigger than one person and his plans, and we have survived much, and that while they may disagree with the President, he isn’t evil and he does have good intentions.

Democrats, for their part, will need to appreciate that the president isn’t perfect, and has made mistakes, and doesn’t have all the answers, and even some Republicans may have better ideas then he does on certain issues.  President Obama isn’t going to be able to do all what they project ahead.

And for all of us, seeing the good in another, as well as the bad, and understanding we are each flawed human beings with biases and prejudices just might be the best path to the happiness and joy we each want today.

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