Daniel Gilbert: Why The Brain Talks To Itself: Sources Of Error In Emotional Prediction
Abstract (Via Harvard)
People typically choose pleasure over pain. But how do they know which of these their choices will entail? The brain generates mental simulations (previews) of future events, which produce affective reactions ( premotions), which are then used as a basis for forecasts ( predictions) about the future event’s emotional consequences. Research shows that this process leads to systematic errors of prediction. We review evidence indicating that these errors can be traced to five sources.
5 Sources of Errors Of Prediciton:
1. Previews of The Future Are Unrepresentative
When we generate previews of a future event, we draw on a vast network of information about similar events that have happened in the past (Hawkins & Blakeslee 2004; Dudai & Carruthers 2005; Addis et al. 2007; Buckner & Carroll 2007), and thus our previews are only as good as the memories on which they are based. Ideally, a preview of a future event should be based on memories of very similar past events—but given that we cannot know precisely how a future event will unfold, how can we know which past events are the most similar to it? The statistically sensible solution to this problem is to base our previews on those past events that are most representative or typical of their class.
2. Previews are essentialized
If previews contained every detail of the views they were meant to simulate, then imagining a dental appointment would take precisely as long as the appointment itself. But it does not, and that is because previews generally contain only the essential features that define an event and omit the features that are merely incidental to it.
3. Previews are truncated
Just as previews tend to emphasize the defining rather than the incidental features of future events, so do they tend to emphasize the event’s early occurring rather than late-occurring moments.
4. Previews are comparative
How would it feel to buy a lottery ticket that paid $50 if one’s friend bought a ticket that paid $80? Many of us have the compelling intuition that we would be slightly unhappy, and that we might actually be happier if we had won only $40 and our friend had won only $10 (Tversky & Griffin 1991; Solnick & Hemenway 1998). The reason we make this prediction is that we imagine comparing our $60 to our friend’s $80, which makes our winnings seem paltry by contrast. But research suggests that in a wide range of circumstances, people are less likely to make such comparisons than they imagine.
5. The problem of dissimilar context
Accurate predictions require that the content of our previews be similar to the content of our views, and as the studies reviewed above suggest, this is not always the case. But accurate predictions also require that the context in which previewing occurs be similar to the context in which viewing occurs, and as it turns out, this is not always the case either.
Additional Excerpts (Via Harvard)
“The memory of the co-occurrence of the cat and the bell allows the bird to transcend the normal restrictions of linear time, reacting to a future cat before it becomes a present cat. The brain specializes in memory because memory enables prediction, and prediction gives organisms a head start.”
“In essence, we generate mental simulations or previews of future events, which cause us to have affective reactions or premotions, which we then use as a basis for our forecasts or predictions about the event’s likely emotional consequences ”
“Studies confirm that our failure to preview the incidental features of future events can lead us to mispredict our emotional reactions to them.”