The Psychology of Thinking About the Past and Future
The Psychology of Thinking
About the Past and Future
Covering Recent Research on Immune Neglect and Affective Forecasting; the
Planning Fallacy; and Counterfactual Thinking.
This Presentation Includes Discussion Questions
Kahneman and Tversky
Born: Tel Aviv,
Their first jointly authored paper, "Belief in the
Law of Small Numbers," was published in 1971
“As I came closer to [the SS soldier], trying to walk fast, I noticed
that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over,
picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice
the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great
emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet,
showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went
home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people
were endlessly complicated and interesting”
Daniel Kahneman on the roots of
his interest in psychology:
“When I was 18, I couldn’t
understand why anyone would
want to live past the age of 50.”
Daniel Kahneman at the age of 66:
Timothy D. Wilson
Univ. of Virginia
Austin Powers’s Dad
James BondPerry Mason
I might actually learn something by going down to the local
community college and taking a course in writing. After all,
as a high school dropout, not only had I never had a writing
course, I wasn't a particularly good speller.
So I got on the bus and I went down to the local
community college. By the time I got down there, they said
the course on writing was full. It had been a very long bus
ride, so I said, "Alright, fine. What's open?" They looked
and they told me, "Psychology." I thought, That's got
something to do with crazy people; maybe I'll write a story
about a crazy person some day. I told them to sign me up.
Negative events may have
been far from neutral.
Positives ones may have
been close to neutral.
We know that losses are generally experienced as
larger than gains, even when they are objectively
equal (Kahneman & Tversky)
What if we have two
1. The negative affect is
2. Not so much
Hurting People in a Laboratory
Separating People with Negative
Study 4: The Hurting Machine
(Computer vs. Human Personality
Study 5: Just Death
(Make all participants feel bad;
Blameworthy vs. Blameless)
Study 6: Failure, Inc.
(0 minutes + 10 minutes)
Participants who didn’t expect
negative feedback predicted they’d
feel equally bad a few minutes after
receiving it from a fallible or infallible
source. But they felt better in the
fallible source condition.
Forecasters believed they’d be
equally upset after reading both
stories, but experiencers who read
the blameworthy story became less
upset than those who read the
Contrary to their predictions,
participants felt they’d feel equally
bad after a job rejection on the basis
of fair or unfair decisions, but this
was not so, especially 10 minutes
First, events that are potentially averse are
also potentially appetitive.
Second, forecasters may not look ahead
because being aware of immunity might
paradoxically suppress immunity.
Third, if people were aware of how well
immunity works, they might not be
motivated to take preventive action.
Immune neglect in affective forecasting
Michael Hoerger, Stuart W. Quir, Richard E. Lucas, Thomas
Journal of Research in Personality 43(2009), 91–94
Author studied coping strategies. Those
reporting greater use of emotional processing
coping strategies recovered more effectively
from losses, but failed to foresee this when
making predictions, leading to increased bias.
This is the first study to document individual
differences in immune neglect.
Evidence for the hypothesized pattern of
correlations between coping styles and the
impact bias for football losses (Boerger, et al.)
"If a particular belief has some property that
facilitates its own transmission, then that
belief tends to be helped by an increasing
number of minds...False beliefs, like bad
genes, can and do become super-
replicators...False beliefs that promote stable
societies tend to propagate because people
who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable
societies, which provide the means by which
false beliefs propagate.” – Daniel Gilbert,
Stumbling Upon Happiness
How to Make Better Predictions
"The experience of a randomly selected
individual can sometimes provide a better
basis for predicting your future experience
than your own imagination can.” – Daniel
Gilbert, Stumbling Upon Happiness
Is asking participants how happy they are really a good measure of
overall well being? What is another way they could have measured
happiness that might have given a more accurate picture of how the
people were really doing? Should they have measured other emotions
as well? What about physiological measurements?
Although voters appear to have a more vested interest in the outcome of
elections, does Gilbert et al.’s second study portray an ecologically valid
situation in which most Americans would feel is personally relevant and
would therefore feel the negative consequences as much as a breakup or
being denied tenure? What about the death of a loved one? How are
personal relevance and saliency important?
In psychology we often emphasize the importance that single events
(such as the death of a family member or divorce) can have on an
individual's life. The articles states on page 618, "Most people are
reasonably happy most of the time, and most events do little to
change that for long". Do you agree with this statement? Why or
Adolescence is characterized by higher impulsivity and more
frequent emotional highs and lows than adulthood. Would teens be
more susceptible to durability bias than adults and be more likely to
overpredict the extent of their affective responses to future events?
On p. 636 the authors propose people’s inability to correctly predict
their feelings after a negative event but not positive events may be
because negative events are consistently avoided but positive
events are not. Would this imply that people with high openness to
new experiences—being less avoidant—are more accurate
predictors than people with low openness?
What does the immune neglect article tell us about risky behavior?
Are people less likely to engage in behaviors with a potential for
failure, simply because they expect the negative affect to last longer
than it actually will? How can we inform people and train them to
know this? Would they be more likely to undertake entrepreneurial
behaviors with potentially big gains on one hand and big failures on
the other if they know that failure would not be as problematic as it
Dale Griffin and Michael Ross
Based on Buehler’s doctoral dissertation
Simon Fraser University, now at Wilfrid Laurier University
Univ. of Waterloo
People Underestimate Their
Task Completion Times
Although aware that previous
predictions were overly optimistic,
people believe their current
forecasts are realistic.
Study 1: Optimistic Time Estimates
Study 2: More Typical Task +
Measure of Confidence
Study 3: Adding a Think-Aloud
Procedure and Making Failure
Study 4: Recall Condition vs. Recall-
Study 5: Social Prediction
In each study fewer than 50% of
participants finished their tasks in
their predicted time.
Participants recall of the past is
biased and its relevance
But in an observer role, participants
were overly pessimistic.
Research continues on:
1. The role of motivation, and
2. The consequence of optimistic
Peetz, J., Buehler, R., & Wilson, A. E. (2010). Planning for the near and distant future: How does
temporal distance affect task completion predictions? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
46, 709-720 .
In contexts that elicited a focus on planning, individuals predicted earlier completion times for close than distant projects. In
contexts that prompted a focus on obstacles, individuals predicted later completion times for close than distant projects.
Buehler, R., Peetz, J., & Griffin, D. (2010). Finishing on time: When do predictions influence completion
times? Organizational Behaviour and Human Decison Processes, 111, 23-32.
Manipulated predictions affected completion times of closed tasks, defined as tasks carried out within a single, continuous session
but not of open tasks, defined as tasks requiring multiple work sessions. This implies that task completion predictions help to initiate
action, but their impact diminishes over the course of extensive, multi-stage projects.
Peetz, J., & Buehler, R. (2009). Is there a budget fallacy? The role of saving goals in the prediction of personal
spending. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1579-1591.
First, participants tended to underestimate their future spending. They predicted spending substantially less money in the coming
week than they actually spent or than they remembered spending in the previous week. Second, the prediction bias stemmed from
people’s savings goals—defined as the general desire to save money or minimize future spending—at the time of prediction.
Planning Your Dissertation
Planning How to Spend Your
Meager TA Salary. Good luck with
Discussion Questions About the
Other Factors in Estimating Time
What is the role of distracting events? When do they exert influence
and when not? Maybe people are accurate about deadlines because
they are less likely to cave in to distraction.
Correlates and Individual Differences
Would the temporal proximity of the deadline affect the accuracy of
people’s completion time predictions? Would people be more or
less likely to make optimistic predictions if their deadline was 6
months away (as opposed to a week away)? Outside an
experimental setting, are people more likely to be accurate in their
predictions if a deadline is sooner rather than significantly later (and
perhaps seemingly more personally relevant)?
When participants recalled concrete past experiences, absolute
accuracy did not improve, such that some participants were overly
pessimistic and some overly optimistic. What personality traits
might covary with these differences? What could differentiate the
foolish mistake-makers from their more accurate counterparts?
Would chronic procrastinators be more or less prone to the planning
fallacy than those who don’t tend to procrastinate much?
Better than reality
Related to Social Comparison Theory
Motives that are relevant to comparison include self-
enhancement, perceptions of relative standing, maintenance of a
positive self-evaluation, closure, components of attributes and the
avoidance of closure (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990; Suls, Martin,
& Wheeler, 2002).
Upward: Affect-enhancing tendency in
which people note their similarity to
“higher” people. Or when people need
motivation for improvement.
Downward: Defensive tendency in
which people look at “lower” people in
order to feel better off.
More efficient to focus on
And Normal Outcomes
Actions after success
But Inactions after Failures
People focus on
Actions in the Short Term
But Inactions in the Long Term
People focus on
Rather than the Uncontrollable
Four experiments explored whether 2 uniquely human
characteristics—counterfactual thinking (imagining
alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to
create meaning in life—are causally related….
Counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness
of key life experiences…. Through counterfactual
reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in
fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived
from important life events.
From what might have been to what must have
been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning.
Kray, Tetlock and Roese
Is the fact that “the issue of the everyday accuracy of causal
judgments per se has not been satisfactorily addressed in
attributional research in general” a cause for major concern
considering that counterfactuals rely on accurate causal
How might locus of control relate to counterfactual
thinking? Are people who believe that they have no control
over their fate less likely to engage in counterfactual
The author states that certain situational factors (fatal
near misses) would be likely to evoke downward
counterfactuals (alternative is worse than actuality). What
individual differences could correlate with downward
counterfactual thinking or counterfactual thinking in
What belief systems may be worth considering?
And Belief Systems
Locus of Control
The article mentions "outcome closeness", where people are more likely
to engage in counterfactual thinking when they perceive themselves as
having missed a goal by a small margin. Does this match with your own
experiences? Are there any advantages to focusing on far misses
The benefits depend upon how accurate the content is. “If I would have
studied more for the test, I could have done better” is more accurate
than “If the teacher was not out to get me, I would have done better”.
How often do people form accurate counterfactuals, and what influences
Advantages and Costs
Counterfactual thinking regarding traumatic events is one of the
hardest cognitive processes to correct in individuals who suffer from
PTSD. How might this tendency to hang onto counterfactual beliefs
be affected by a belief in a just world or the desire to make inferences
for future action?
So is there an appropriate level of counterfactual thinking that will
lead to benefits? Would a person who excessively ruminates about
what could have been miss the beneficial lesson to be learned or try
to overcorrect in a way still causes failure? With regard to depression,
how would an individual break the positive feedback loop between
negative affect and counterfactual thinking?
The Roese review of literature regarding counterfactuals
summarizes counterfactuals usage without exploring
limitations that would otherwise restrict counterfactual
thinking. How could cognitive load and attention impact
the generation of counterfactuals?
What are the differences and similarities between
counterfactual thinking and ruminating over past
Predictability, in large part, is
what turns play into work. Like a
path that is fully visible, known
outcomes engender tiredness at
the outset, so game quickly
–Elizabeth Farrelly, Blubberland: The
Dangers of Happiness