Although the literature suggests people have a hard time predicting emotions, a new study finds that maybe we are not as bad as previously imagined.
“Psychology has focused on how we mess up and how stupid we are,” said University of Texas at Austin psychologist Dr. Samuel D. Gosling. He and colleague Michael Tyler Mathieu suspected that researchers were missing part of the story.
A re-analysis of the raw data from 11 studies of “affective forecasting” led the researchers to believe that individuals are not all that inaccurate when predicting emotions.
If you look at it in absolute terms, says Gosling, it’s true. Take a group of people, ask them to make an emotional prediction, and on average they will get it wrong.
“But there’s also a relative way of looking at it,” he said. You thought you’re going to feel really, really awful when you saw that red F on the top of the paper — and you ended up feeling only awful. I guessed I’d feel moderately bummed and, after flunking, felt only mildly so. You forecast you’d feel worse than I forecast I was going to feel — and relative to each other, we were both right.
The authors combed through the literature with two criteria in mind: the study had to be “within-subject,” meaning the same person did the forecasting and reported the later feeling; and the two reports had to be about the same event.
The investigators ended up analyzing the raw data of 11 articles, comprising 16 studies and 1,074 participants. They discovered that looking at individuals, and their role or position in a group, resulted in better emotional predictions.
One way of thinking about it is not objectively better than the other, said Gosling. But relative accuracy might be useful in real life.
His example: An HIV clinic has learned that its clients are generally less upset than they thought they’d be at receiving a positive HIV test. But rather than throw counselors at clients at random, the clinic might serve people better if they know in advance who is going to have the worst time of it, and prepare those people for possible bad news.
“The story here is not, ‘are we bad forecasters or aren’t we?’ For me, the story is that past literature says we’re bad at this. And in truth we are bad at it in some ways, but not in others.”
The bottom line: “It’s complicated.”
The study is published in Psychological Science.