If you think you can predict what you will like, think again. When people try to estimate how much they will enjoy a future experience, they are dependably wrong, according to research by Harvard psychologists — and the reason is something they call "attentional collapse." When we imagine future experiences, we tend to compare them with alternative experiences — experiences we've had in the past, or other experiences we might have before or after. But the fact is that none of those alternatives come into play once we're actually in the moment. That's what Daniel Gilbert, author and Harvard psychology professor, means by "attentional collapse": it's the idea that when we are actually having an engaging, encompassing experience, it acts like a black hole of imagination, sucking in all of our attention and making our preconceptions irrelevant.
The thought of a weekend office picnic, for example, sounds tedious compared with a trip to the spa, but fun compared with working overtime on a Sunday. But these comparisons have little bearing on our actual experience of the picnic because once we arrive and start chatting with colleagues or playing softball, the experience draws our attention away from the alternatives. "The kinds of comparisons we're making when we're imagining the future aren't the kinds we make when we get there," Gilbert says.
In his latest research, conducted in collaboration with social psychologist Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and presented last weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, Gilbert bolsters the theory that our inability to predict enjoyment of our future experiences keeps us from accurately predicting what will make us happiest in the future overall.
Take the simple act of eating a potato chip. In a series of experiments, Gilbert invited Harvard undergraduates to a lab stocked with potato chips, along with either sardines or chocolate. To compare expected versus actual enjoyment of the experience, one group of students was asked to predict how much they would enjoy the chips compared to the relatively better food (chocolate) or the worse food (sardines); this forecasting group was asked to imagine eating the chips before, after or instead of the alternatives. Students in another "experience" group were instructed to eat the chips and the other foods. Turns out that the other foods had no impact on the actual enjoyment of eating chips. "People who are simply imagining how much they're going to like chips imagine they're going to like them much more if they're eaten after sardines, than if they're eaten after chocolate," Gilbert says. "That's wrong."
Whether the students ate chips before or after sardines or chocolate, it made no difference. Rather, eating a potato chip was an experience unto itself. "It's the taste of that crackily, greasy, salty, crunchy, fried potato flavor — it's the consuming experience you're having and your attention collapses on this moment," says Gilbert.
So what does eating potato chips have to do with our larger, more important life decisions? Consider the choice to marry one sweetheart over another. If you pick the genial, down-to-earth banker, will you forever regret letting go of that free-spirited artist who loves traveling as much as you? Probably not. The very fact that you'll be living with — and experiencing — one spouse and not the other means that the passed-over option will quickly fade in your mind. "The people you don't marry don't move in with you," says Gilbert.
Envisioning what life would have been like with an alternate spouse becomes difficult and increasingly irrelevant as you settle into the life you've selected. "Once you make a choice in life, the unchosen alternatives evaporate," he says. According to Gilbert's earlier research, which he featured in his 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness, when faced with an irrevocable decision, people are happier with the outcome than when they have the opportunity to change their minds. "It's a very powerful phenomenon," he says. "This is really the difference between dating and marriage."
But what if the person you didn't marry moved in next door? Suddenly your attention isn't completely collapsed on your own marriage, and every day you can witness the alternative life you overlooked.
Gilbert simulated that scenario with potato chips. As in the other experiments, one group of students was asked to eat the chips and other foods, and another was asked to imagine doing so. Only this time, two more groups were asked to eat — or imagine eating — to the beat of a metronome. Those who ate at a normal pace — one chip for every 15 seconds — came to the same misguided conclusions as other students: predictions did not correspond to their actual levels of enjoyment. Yet those who ate chips more slowly, one every 45 seconds, had very different results. Their forecasts were almost completely accurate.
Eating the chips slowly is an "experience that isn't engaging, so your mind is free to wander to all of the other things you could have been doing," Gilbert says. The same phenomenon occurs while driving, when you move into the right lane, only to have the traffic stall as the left lane speeds by. Suddenly, "it really hurts to be in the right lane," he says. "You're not driving, you're not engaged, you're not navigating. You're just sitting and your mind can wander and you can think about all the things you might have done instead of getting in the right lane."
Yet the moments when we are actually able to dedicate that level of comparison to an experience while we're having it are few and far between, Gilbert says. In the vast majority of scenarios, "the roads we don't take in life disappear a lot more quickly than we think they will."
So what does this mean for how we should contemplate our next big decision? For Gilbert, it's simple. "When looking into the future, never trust your gut. That doesn't mean it's always wrong, you should just never trust it. It never hurts to stop and ask."