Affective Forecasting: Understanding the Ways We Think About Our Future Emotions and Their Impact on Decision-Making

By David E. Kouba, Esq.




When advising clients, attorneys often must forecast future developments and predict their implications.  These can be high-stakes decisions, and attorneys approach them accordingly—collecting information, evaluating contingencies, deliberating alternatives, and weighing benefits and risks.  Forward-looking decisions, however, are not confined to attorneys’ professional lives.  Every day, lawyers make decisions that impact their personal lives as well.  These decisions depend not only on what might happen in the future, but how the attorney thinks the possible outcomes will make them feel.


Predicting future emotions—a process referred to as “affective forecasting”—is therefore central to the way we evaluate and choose among alternatives.  When making a career decision, for example, we are likely to imagine what things would be like if we take different paths, consider how those possible options might make us feel, and factor our predicted emotional response into that decision.


Research, however, suggests that we often miss the mark when predicting how future events will affect our emotions.  We tend to exaggerate our expected feelings, and our current emotions, whether they be good or bad, often distort the way we see ourselves in the future.  A disconnect between expectations and outcomes can produce disappointment and unmet expectations.  Moreover, when our negative emotions discourage us from taking positive actions, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Either scenario can challenge and undermine attorney well-being and mental health.  Accordingly, this article explores these challenges and possible strategies that might mitigate their effect.


Affective Forecasting and Obstacles to Accurate Predictions


When making decisions, it is natural for people to consider how the available choices will make them feel in the future.  But these predictions are not always correct.


“A burgeoning literature on affective forecasting reveals that individuals demonstrate remarkably poor insight when asked to predict the magnitude of their distress following emotional events.”[1]  Research, for example, has shown that runners overestimate the negative feelings they will feel after a bad athletic performance,[2] people taking a driver’s license test overestimate the disappointment they will experience if they fail and how long that disappointment lasts,[3] college students overestimate how happy or disappointed they will be if their football team wins or loses,[4] and individuals in romantic relationships overestimate the sadness they will experience once the relationship ends.[5]


The inability to accurately predict future emotions stems, at least in part, from inherent biases that affect the process.  The tendency to overestimate the intensity of our emotional responses to future events is referred to as “impact bias.”[6]  “Durability bias” refers to the tendency to believe that our positive or negative emotions will last longer than they actually do.[7]  These biases arise in part because people downplay or ignore their ability to regulate and adjust their emotions in response to actual events.[8]  In other words, a person’s emotional “forecasts seem not to account for their own psychological immune systems: that is, their ability to effortlessly make sense of and subsequently reduce the emotional impact of unexpected negative events.”[9]  In addition, these biases present when people attend to some details about future events but exclude other information, a phenomenon referred to as “focalism.”[10]


Our current emotional and mental states also impact the way we view the future and make decisions.  People often project their current emotional state into the future, even when those currently existing feelings are likely, if not certain, to change.[11]  For example, a person who is hungry tends to inflate their positive feelings about a certain kind of food, and someone who is sick is likely to underestimate how much fun they will have at a party several weeks later.[12]  This tendency has been referred to as a “projection bias.”[13]


Consistent with this projection bias, studies show that symptoms of depression correlate with increased expectations of negative feelings in the future and with decreased expectations of positive affect.[14]  In addition, “negative affect is associated with pessimism, including a tendency to underestimate the likelihood of future positive events and overestimate the likelihood of future negative events.”[15]  And feelings of “daily loneliness” impact the extent to which people predict “inclusion that will occur tomorrow and in the general future,” such that people expect “more exclusion in the future on days they felt lonely, independently of whether they actually were or would be excluded.”[16]


The projection bias thus creates a double-edged sword.  Negative emotions not only color our current feelings, but can lead us to avoid or delay actions that would beget improvements and in some instances become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Impact on Attorney Well-Being and Mental Health


Attorneys serve as advocates for and advisors to their clients.  These roles require prognostication, prediction, and decision-making.  But forward-looking thinking and decision-making are not limited to attorneys’ professional lives.  Attorneys also must think about their own futures and make decisions that have profound and lasting consequences for their personal lives.  When doing so, they are likely to consider how different outcomes will make them feel.


Given the role that logical reasoning and analytical decision-making often plays within the legal profession, attorneys in particular may struggle to fully anticipate and evaluate the role that emotions play when making decisions.  This can have significant repercussions.  An attorney who overestimates the amount of happiness or satisfaction that a future event will provide is putting themselves at risk of disappointment and unmet expectations.  And an attorney who makes a decision based on fervent, but short-lived, emotions might come to regret their choice when their feelings change.


Strategies to Improve Affective Forecasting and Decision-Making


The potential impact of affective forecasting begs an obvious question:  What can attorneys do to improve their ability to predict their future emotions?  While this important issue deserves additional research, some approaches are considered below.


Talk to Others Who Have Faced Similar Circumstances


One strategy to counteract the impact of biases and improve decision-making process is to explore the possible outcomes more thoroughly and from different perspectives.  One way to do this would be asking other people who faced similar situations about their experience.  Indeed, research suggests this can lead to more satisfying decisions.  One study, for example, found that providing individuals realistic job previews before they started a job produced more realistic expectations and decreased turnover and dissatisfaction.[17]  Another study found that providing targeted narratives to patients choosing between medical procedures tended to result in fewer affective forecasting errors.[18]


Mindfulness Practices


Another possible way to mitigate the impact of biases in affective forecasting relies on mindfulness principles.  Research shows that individuals who attend to both their internal experiences and their external environments, and recognize that many factors influence their emotions, tend to be better at predicting their future emotions.[19]  Studies therefore suggest that “people may be able to improve their forecasting abilities to the degree that training in mindfulness also improves individuals’ ability to observe their thoughts and emotions as they relate to ongoing life events.”[20]


Avoid Decision-Making at the Wrong Time


Given the relationship between current emotions and feelings about the future, another important step toward better decisions would be to avoid, where possible, making decisions when experiencing particularly strong emotions.  If a person is especially angry, sad, or happy about something, they might project those feelings into the future and make decisions under the mistaken belief that they will continue to feel that way.  Postponing a decision until these feelings dissipate would likely allow the person to better evaluate their options.  And, of course, it would provide additional time to gather information, consider different perspectives, and/or discuss the decision with someone else.


Moving Forward


These strategies are simple, preliminary approaches to a complex range of important issues.  Accurately predicting our future emotions helps us to set reasonable expectations and identify strategies to improve the way we feel.  Additional research on these subjects is therefore warranted.  This research should focus on, among other things, how current emotions impact our views about the future and the steps attorneys can take to adjust to the impact of forecasting biases when choosing a path forward.


[1] Eastwick, P. W. et al.  (2007).  Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1-8.  doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2007.07.001; see also Emanuel, A.S., et al.  (2010).  The role of mindfulness facets in affective forecasting.  Personality and Individual Differences.  doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.012 (explaining that individuals tend to “predict that they will be happier than they actually will be following positive events and unhappier than they actually will be following negative events”).

[2] Van Dijk, W.W., et al. (2009).  How do you feel?  Affective forecasting and the impact bias in track athletics. Journal of Social Psychology, 149(3), 243–248.

[3] Finkenauer, C., et al. (2007).  Investigating the role of time in affective forecasting: Temporal influences on forecasting accuracy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(8), 1152–1166.

[4] Wilson, et al.  (2000).  Focalism: a source of durability bias in affective forecasting.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), 821-836.  doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.5.821.

[5] Gilbert, D. T., et al.  (1998).  Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 617–638.  doi.10.1037/0022-3514.75.3.617.

[6] Thompson, R.J., et al. (2017).  Positive and negative affective forecasting in remitted individuals with bipolar I disorder, and major depressive disorder, and healthy controls.  Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41, 673-685.  doi.10.1007/s10608-017-9840-2.

[7] Celestine, N. (2018).  What is affective forecasting?  A psychologist explains.  Positive Psychology.

[8] Wilco, W. (2017).  Looking into the crystal ball of our emotional lives: emotion regulation and the overestimation of future guilt and shame.  Cognition and Shame, 31(3), 616-624.  doi.10.1080/02699931.2015.1129313.

[9] Eastwick, supra n. 1; see also Hoerger, M., et al.  (2012).  Coping strategies and immune neglect in affective forecasting:  Direct evidence and key moderators.  Judgment and Decision Making, 7(1), 86-96.  doi.10.1017/S1930297500001868.

[10] Emanuel, supra n. 1 (“[focalism] causes people to concentrate solely on the specific event and fail to realize that other co-occurring events will influence their future emotions as well”).

[11] Celestine, supra n.7.

[12] Affective forecasting.  Psychology Today.

[13] Psychology Today, supra n.12.

[14] Thompson, supra n.6.

[15] Eastwick, supra n.1.

[16] Eastwick, supra n.1

[17] Shaffer, V.A., et al.  Debiasing affective forecasting errors with targeted, but not representative, experience narratives.  99 Patient Education and Counseling 10, 1611-1619 (Oct. 2016) (

[18] Shaffer, supra n.17.

[19] Emmanuel, supra n.1.

[20] Emmanuel, supra n.1.



David Kouba is counsel in Arnold & Porter’s Washington D.C. office and spends much of his professional time defending consumer fraud and products liability litigation. In addition to practicing law, David co-chairs the firm’s well-being committee, serves on the Institute for Well-Being in Law’s Research and Scholarship Committee, and has spoken and written frequently on subjects related to attorney mental health and well-being.