The Best Way to Predict Your Feelings

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
January 04, 2016

See how other people you know felt in the same circumstances.

Some people are certain that they know how they’ll feel in a new job or at a new school. Others spend more time undecided. They realize that the decision relies in part on predicting their emotions, which isn’t nearly as easy as you might think.  

After all, even though you’re thinking about yourself, you are predicting the future, which is uncertain. Recognizing that uncertainty doesn’t mean you’re indecisive. Yet often when someone who is undecided about a choice asks for advice, an answer comes back along these lines, “If you think about it enough, you’ll know the answer that’s right for you.” 

Wrong. Much research has shown that we’re lousy at predicting our emotions. We dread events that turn out to be easy; sometimes the only hard part was the anxious run-up. We overestimate the impact of major events like deaths and divorce that aren’t easy but also not as devastating as we feared. We also crave particular rewards and end up feeling blah when they finally come and pass by. 


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It’s easy to assume that these mistakes indicate lack of insight or forgetfulness. Shouldn’t you know yourself, based on the past? But human memory is tricky, and you also need to notice and recall those distortions. As just one example, when we think about the past we tend not to recall how long certain emotions were in play. Have you ever heard yourself pan a movie because you were dissatisfied with the last 10 minutes, even if you enjoyed the previous hour and a half? When a job has gone sour for several months, you may think you need an entirely new career or role, forgetting that you did that job happily for five years. The same applies to romances and marriages. When people divorce, they often can only dimly remember the happy times. That doesn’t mean they’re dumb; it means they’ve fallen for a normal memory trick. 

Memory steers us wrong in other ways, too. So if searching your memory isn’t reliable, what’s a better way to guess how you may feel?

Asking other people about their own experience is one of the best. 

You don’t need to find a twin or clone to get useful information. When you ask you might hear, “Everybody’s different. It’s really personal. Nobody can tell you how you’ll feel.” Actually, you don’t need to start with the assumption that you’re very different from everybody in the world. In most ways, you’re not. Your differences may be irrelevant to this particular situation. In “Stumbling on Happiness,” psychologist Dan Gilbert points out that we tend to resist the idea that we can learn from someone else’s story. "We overestimate our uniqueness and thus don't think that other people's experiences can tell us much about our own," he says.   

In one experiment, female undergrads received information about a man and then predicted how much they’d enjoy talking with him for five minutes. Other women heard how much another female student had enjoyed her five minutes with the same man. The second group made much more accurate predictions, yet, at the end of the experiment, believed that information about the man would have been more useful. In a second experiment, students received detailed information about a system of categorizing personality. They were then asked to predict how they would feel after their own personality was categorized. Other students heard how another student felt after that experience, and — as the researchers expected — their predictions were more accurate.

Next time you’re undecided, why not ask someone who’s had a similar experience? If you get the “everybody’s different” response and not much detail, you might say, “I know it’s my own decision but I really want to know what it was like for you when you…..” Tell them that you believe you’re likely to react much like most people or people similar to you. However things turn out, you’ll have made a decision using a reasonable method that requires both humility and candor, and that’s admirable. 


April 03, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN