Learning from your mistakes requires seeing them

Have you ever planned a purchase, mulled it over, anticipated it, imagined how maybe it will bring something into your life that will make you a little bit happier and fulfilled – and then when you make the purchase, despite the fact that there’s nothing objectively wrong with it and it’s more or less everything you thought it should be, the allure and the appeal seems to dissipate kind of quickly? It seemed like it would be a fantastic purchase, like it fitted in perfectly with some aspect of your personality or lifestyle or whatever, but then when you got it – it’s just not conjuring up those joyous emotions. Yeah, it’s alright… I guess. It’s perfectly… nice. But it’s not thrilling and exciting and fulfilling. It’s just… there. Doing its thing, being an inanimate object, and you find your mind wandering, considering another potential purchase and imagining how it would bring a bit of extra happiness to your life…

The genesis of the problem is that humans are pretty bad at predicting their future emotions. When it comes to accurately imagining the emotions we will experience as a consequence of decisions we make or events we experience (a process known as affective forecasting, since it involves forecasting one’s affect) we’re just really not that good.

As if suffering from that particular blindspot wasn’t bad enough, it also turns out that we’re pretty bad at another thing: figuring out that our judgement was ever wrong. As reported in this paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people are not only bad at making predictions about their future emotional states, but once they get to those emotional states, they’re bad at remembering what their predictions were in the first place.

In one particular experiment, looking specifically at happiness regarding important purchases, people firstly tended to make predictions that overestimated how happy they’d be after they made an intended purchase (you ask them beforehand how happy they think they’ll feel following the purchase, then get them back after the purchase and ask them how happy the purchase made them). Secondly, when you ask people to remember back to their predictions of how happy they would be due to the purchase, they misremember their prediction – they say that their prediction was less positive than it actually was. So, for example, they might predict that they’ll be very happy post-purchase, but then it turns out that they only feel moderately happy, but then they incorrectly remember their prediction and think that they had always predicted that they’d only be moderately happy. Their brain incorrectly remembers their prediction as being more accurate than it actually was.

It also turns out that the bigger the error in a person’s recall of their prediction (e.g. they predicted being very happy but ended up being not happy at all), the less likely they were to adjust their beliefs about the ability of purchases to make them happy in general. This results in people never realising that they’re consistently wrong about predicting how happy a purchase will make them, and continuing to assume that purchases will make them happy.

The killer is that even though people predicted they would be happier after making their intended purchase, there was no difference in happiness levels between the people who did make the purchase and those who didn’t end up making the purchase. In short:

People continue to make purchases that never make them as happy as they think they will, they never realise that this keeps happening, and they really could have saved themselves the trouble because it’s possible that they would have been just as happy all along if they hadn’t made any purchases at all.

As amazing as it is, the human mind can still be quite a disadvantageous thing sometimes.

One Thought on “Learning from your mistakes requires seeing them

  1. S from a very cold place :) on January 27, 2013 at 5:53 am said:

    Yep – 2 (not just one but two – I needed two of them almost – but not quite – identical)crisp-white Anne Lafontaine button-down shirts. Because they are ”THE” ones, the ”IT” no ? Just sitting there almost 3 years later. I wore one (1) of them…once :(

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