In the excellent John Huston film, The Maltese Falcon, a crew of criminals and adventurers, led by Kasper Gutman (played impeccably by Sydney Greenstreet) chase down the valuable and eponymous bird statuette with such single-mindedness that robbery, murder, and double-crossings fail to deter the quest, offering the viewer a deliciously convoluted plot to digest and the psychologist an intriguing question to ponder. Of course, the theme is relatively common. Arthur’s knights had their grail; and Captain Ahab had his white whale. Perhaps not obsessive or sublime enough to anchor the plots of great fiction, more mundane single-minded quests are nevertheless familiar in our everyday life. I once spent five hours, for example, searching desperately for a book that, immediately upon finding, I threw back into a box and forgot about. More powerfully, many of us may remember working inexhaustibly to win the love of some beautiful mate or another, only to discover that such an achievement does not necessarily entail limitless ecstasy. Even children seem to exhibit this behavioral/emotional proclivity. If they don’t have a toy, they whine and cry for it as if it were the source of endless happiness; but once they get it, they are quickly sickened by it and turn their attention to another “must have” toy. The overall pattern, then, is this: before the goal (romantic partner, toy, book, et cetera) is achieved, we are sure that it holds the key to everlasting joy; after, we wonder why we were so thoroughly deluded. This propensity might lead to great works of art, but from a phenomenological point of view, it is often quite frustrating. Moreover, nature didn’t bestow such a tendency upon us for the sake of great drama.
In the psychological literature, the capacity to predict future emotional states is called affective forecasting. It is an amazing human capacity, one that might be unique in the animal kingdom (Suddendorf & Corbalis, 2007). Howevever, as the anecdotes above illustrate, its uniqueness is no guarantee of its infallibility. Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert (2003; 2005) have provided scientifically valid evidence to support the intuitions of great artists and everyday humans alike: human affective forecasting is systematically biased. For the purposes of this blog, the most important bias is the impact bias or the overestimation of the duration and intensity of future emotional reactions to future events. Although I have focused on mistaken assumptions of future happiness, the impact bias actually works both ways. That is, people often overestimate the amount of suffering a future negative event would (will) cause. Wilson and Gilbert offer a number of cognitive reasons for these biases, including focalism or “the tendency to overestimate how much we will think about the event in the future and to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings” (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005, p. 132). Doubtlessly, these cognitive quirks explain, to one degree or another, our propensity to make affective forecasting errors—but only at the proximate level. What we really want to know, I think, is why nature gave us a cognitive system that would make such errors. From the perspective of an evolutionary psychologist, there are two basic possible solutions: either the tendency to make the error is an inescapable byproduct of another function of our mind or it serves its own unique evolutionary function (Buss, Haselton, Shackleford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998).
I think affective forecasting errors exist precisely because they serve an important function. Before arguing for this position, I should assert that the following is speculative—I have not been able to discover any direct evidence to support my hypothesis. Nevertheless, I believe it has prima facie plausibility and could, perhaps, receive empirical support in the future. From the point of view of evolution, the perpetuation of genes is the “goal” of life. Any trait that facilitates this task, whether or not it facilitates happiness, will, ceteris paribus, survive and propagate. Consider, then, two types of humans. Type 1 affectively forecasts infallibly and realizes that not much will change if she marries her first mate choice or her fifth. She also recognizes that most things in life follow a similar pattern. Type 2 affectively forecasts like most of us. He believes that one particular mate will bring unfathomable amounts of bliss; furthermore, he believes that most things follow this pattern. A victory against a rival, sweet joy; a hunting success, great happiness; an article published in an important journal, years of satisfaction. Although each triumph is slightly disappointing, he continues to pursue each new goal with equal fervor and dedication. Consider, also, the reverse side of this phenomenon. Type 1 realizes that defeats will not cause ineffable suffering—in fact, she realizes that after a week or two, most defeats are forgotten and life simply rolls on. Type 2, upon the other hand, believes that each defeat or failure will cause terrible, irremediable pain.
The behavioral outcomes appear obvious. Type 1 would be stable, resigned, perhaps cynical—certainly not prone to romanticism. She would not single-mindedly pursue goals or dreams, realizing that such pursuits rarely cash out into the currency of sustained happiness; nor would she tremble at the thought of failure, or work terribly hard to avoid it. Type 2, on the other hand, would be a lot like us: paranoid, optimistic, romantic—prone to idealizing. He would pursue goals with great fervor and avoid possible failure like a plague. From a fitness point of view, it is difficult to see how type 1 would be, on average, more successful. Suppose, for example, that there were a 100 person pool split equally into type 1’s and type 2’s. The type 1’s might be moderately successful, in reproductive terms. But none would achieve overwhelming status or reproductive success because they would realize that such outcomes did not greatly benefit their subjective well-being. Type 2’s would vary more. Some would chase an ideal and spectacularly fail; others, however, say even one or two, would achieve tremendous reproductive success (think of Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan). The affective forecasting biases that they possessed would be passed to their many offspring, which would eventually come to dominate the reproductive pool.
Of course, as the case of Kasper Gutman effectively illustrates, such affective forecasting errors are not always beneficial and are not always attached to fitness enhancing goals. Gutman, for example, notes that he spent untold fortunes on his personal quest, implacably pursuing the bird statuette despite the enormous costs. Corporations have also discovered and taken advantage of this tendency. Children are convinced that a new mint flavored toothpaste will offer boundless joy; teenagers, that a particular brand of clothing will cure their angst and alienation; and adults, that a new car will provide satisfaction for many years to come. Once one purchase is made, the ephemeral happiness quickly dissipates and a new desire is discovered. As a friend of mine has constantly noted, “marketers might be immoral, but they are not stupid.” (I should note that my friend is in marketing!) It is a marketer’s job to discover an underlying psychological proclivity that can be exploited to produce one form of behavior: purchasing. Understanding our tendency to believe that products will supply everlasting happiness might not inoculate us from such errors, but it won’t hurt either.
In the world of literature, such obsessions and delusions are compelling; in the world of consumerism, they are destructive. It is more difficult to say how they rate in everyday life. Perhaps, however, we need to take seriously the hackneyed saying that life is about the journey and not the destination. As John Maynard Keynes noted, in a different context, “in the long run we are all dead.”
Buss, D.M, Haselton, M.G., Shackelford, T.K., Bleske, A.L., & Wakefield, J.C. (1998). Adaptations, exaptations, and spandrels. American Psychologist, 53, 533-548.
Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.
Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 131-134.