At the time, Dan Gilbert’s (2006) “Stumbling on Happiness” was a revelation. Written for the popular science press, it recounted how poorly we approach one of life’s most enduring goals – the pursuit of happiness. In the psychological sciences, this is studied as affective forecasting.
Many of our discretional decisions are based on a prediction on what our emotional reaction will be to a future occurrence. Studies and experiments demonstrate that our affective forecasts show an impact bias. We tend to overestimate the duration and intensity of our emotional reaction to the anticipated event. When we are in a position to reflect back, we find the piece of good fortune was not as satisfying as we had hoped and, similarly, the setback not as devastating as we may have dreaded.
This impact bias may have some evolutionary value as a source of motivation for striving towards a long-term goal with deferred benefits and avoiding behaviours with negative consequence. However, the affective prediction error can just as easily draw us to make bad judgements and miscalculations.
The lack of a theoretical explanatory framework for affective forecasting adds to the confusion. Advances in social cognitive neuroscience may shed some light. We are beginning to understand that theories of the mind that attempt to describe how we can feel empathy with another may also be of relevance in how we relate to our future self. Just as we come to rely on self-reference to understand others, focussing on our emotional state today clouds our thinking on what emotions will dominate tomorrow.
To drive change, leaders need to win consensus and support for their agenda. We have learned that 1) the consequence of such change can be imperfectly assessed both by ourselves and by those we wish to influence and that 2) we project our understanding when we predict the viewpoint of another. We should make note to respond to these challenges throughout the change management process.