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Brace for Impact

When I was a kid I had a very cool set of 7up cans. It consisted of 50 cans, one for each U.S. state, that when stacked properly created a picture of Uncle Sam. It was amazing! I don’t know what became of my set, but as an adult I often longed to have them again.

Then ebay happened.

I found a set of the cans for sale. Woo-hoo! This was great! It would be amazing to have that set again so I snatched them up. When the cans arrived I excitedly stacked them for display. There was Uncle Sam. It was pretty neat. A couple of days later I put them back in the box. They have stayed there in storage for the last 15 years.

It turns out that how I thought I would feel about owning the cans was not how I actually felt when I had them. It was nice, but it didn’t make me as happy as I thought it would.

Future States

Psychologists call this effect Impact Bias, where we overestimate both the intensity and length of a future emotional state. It is the cause of many of our bad decisions, making it a bona fide invisible mind block.

Not only do we misjudge how happy a good experience will make us, but also how miserable a bad experience will feel. For example, researchers have found that with romantic breakups, sports losses, losing a job, etc., we anticipate that we will be extremely unhappy. While we are usually correct about the emotion itself, it is less impactful than we think it will be and we bounce back fairly quickly.

When the Beach Boys sang ‘God only knows what I’d be without you,” they were probably overestimating the impact on the heartbreak. Give it time and you'll be fine, Brian.

Emotional Immunity

Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson were among the first to study the effect in 2003. They found that one of the reasons we are so bad at judging how an event will make us feel is that we fail to recognize our psychological immune system. We are built to process experiences and outcomes in a way that reduces their impact.

Wilson says, “We don’t realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.”

We also think that our high or low emotional state will last longer than it actually does. Research shows that we return to an emotional center much more quickly than we anticipate. Lottery winners report a high level of life satisfaction immediately after winning, but soon that level reverts to – or often below - what it was before they won.

Be less regretful

More often than not, we make decisions based on how we think a particular outcome will make us feel By not recognizing the impact bias and how we will adjust emotionally to an outcome, we often find we later regret our decision.

I now feel I would have been better off spending my money on something other than those collectable 7up cans.

Coming to grips with the impact bias can help us avoid bad decisions that are emotionally charged. One method is to allow for a cooling off period before making a decision. Often we are in an emotionally “hot” state at the time the decision is considered. By waiting, we return to a less highly-charged state and can take a more reasoned approach to the decision.

Another method is to see how other people have responded over time to similar experiences. How has their emotional state or satisfaction changed and how long did it last? While our reactions may not be identical, it can give us a baseline for what to expect.

Think well and be well.

- Steve.


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