The Power of Imagination

17 August 2008

Interview with

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University

Daniel - Imagination is the ability to conjure in our minds events that aren't happening and that didn't happen in the past. That usually means events that might happen, could happen or that will happen.

Meera - What's the purpose of imagination?

Daniel - Without imagination we're stuck in the moment. Our ability to imagine the future allows us to imagine which futures will be better than others. As such we're able to select the good ones and avoid the bad ones. I don't have to chew a mouth full of thumb tacks to know that it's a marvellously bad idea. I know that a wedding is going to be more enjoyable than a divorce, a promotion more enjoyable than a demotion. The reason I know all of these things is because I can use my imagination to play them out. Imagination allows us to be the animal that learns from mistakes we've never made.

Meera - When it comes to imagination in our memory what have you been looking at with your team?

Daniel - My collaborators and I for the last ten years have been trying to understand how and how well people can predict their own hedonic reactions to future events. By that I mean what pleasure or pain they'll get from events in the future. What we've found is that people don't do this all that well. They make systematic errors. They mis-predict how intense their emotional reactions will be and how long those emotional reactions will last.

Meera - How have you been testing this?

Daniel - There's a whole variety of studies on e can do. Most of our studies are behavioural. They're very simple, we ask people to make predictions about how they'll feel in a certain future situation. You wait for the situation to come about or you bring it about in a laboratory. You measure how they really do feel and then in a stunning act of mathematical complexity you compare those two numbers. If they're not the same numbers something interesting is happening. Indeed, they're almost never the same number. People rarely feel precisely the way they expect to feel. This is even with regard to events that are quite familiar to them.

Chocolate chipsMeera - You say familiar events so one of the tests you've been doing has been with potato crisps and chocolate.

Daniel - Yes, we've a whole variety of events ranging from the sublime to the mundane. Eating a potato crisp is one of the simplest hedonic experiences we can have. We put it on our tongue and we experience a certain amount of pleasure. People can reliably report how much pleasure they're experiencing. What we've found is they can't reliably predict how much pleasure they experience even moments before they put it on their tongue. Some of the things that influence their predictions, we're finding don't influence their experiences, for example. If you're in a room with chocolate which most people consider to be far superior to potato crisps they expect the potato crisps not to taste as good because they're mentally comparing them to the chocolate. In fact potato crisps taste just as good when you're looking at chocolate as when you're not.

Meera - That's quite a hands-on particular experiment. What other ways have you found about how people predict how they'll feel about a situation?

Daniel - We've done experiments that range from laboratory experiments to field studies. In the field we at degeneration and disillusion of romantic relationships. How people think they'll feel if they fall in love and how they think they'll feel if they break up. We look at people getting promotions and getting fired. We look at people winning and losing elections. We've looked at many common events and what's interesting is that the kinds of things we see with potato chip eating in the laboratory we see exactly the same sorts of results when we look at the field. The kinds of big events that human beings really care about.

Meera - So no matter what people are always going to have a different reaction beforehand and after? They always say about something devastating it's going to be a lot worse than it is at the moment.

Daniel - That does tend to be the form of most errors. Most people overestimate how bad they'll feel if bad things happen and how long they'll feel that way. They also overestimate how good they'll feel when good things happen and how long they'll feel that way. The fact is most events don't affect us for very long. Most things become quickly irrelevant to our emotional well-being.

Meera - Why do you think people are like that?

Daniel - There's a lot of things about our emotional system that we just don't know. For example, we don't understand the speed with which we tend to adapt. Human beings are remarkably resilient creatures. They adapt to almost anything. This seems not to be something they know about themselves and so they mis-predict the speed of their own adaptation. People are also remarkably good rationalisers. When something bad happens they usually find a way to frame it so it's not quite so bad. The moment the fiancée throws the engagement ring back in your face you suddenly start thinking about all the things you really never had in common and how you probably shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. There's a widespread ability, we all recognise it in our friends and we snicker a bit when they do it. We somehow don't realise that we also do this and that this will make it much better when bad things happen.

Meera - One thing you mentioned yesterday in conference was about, say yesterday when you were at a restaurant and you've got lots of things on the menu people always worry that when they do finally make a decision that's going to affect how they feel about the meal when it comes to it. Is there a difference if someone's got a large amount of choice? Does that affect how they feel at the end?

Daniel - We really think when we have choices between many things that the thing we choose and the thing we don't choose will determine how happy we are. What our experiments reveal is that it's really just the thing we choose. The things we leave behind become quickly irrelevant. Most of the time when we're driving our new car we're not thinking about the other car we might have bought.

Meera - What about if the thing you could have had is in front of you? Say if someone else ordered the meal that you were thinking about having or the car you thought about buying?

Daniel - That changes things tremendously. If the person you might have married but didn't moves in next door you're in real trouble. You're probably going to spend a lot of time thinking what your life might have been. In most cases in life the alternatives that we don't choose, unchosen alternatives kind of disappear. We move away from them. Most of the time when we choose something we discard the alternatives. You're quite right. Occasionally those unchosen alternatives are there to haunt us. In most cases they do make a big difference to the experience we're having.

Meera - What are you hoping to look into next?

Daniel - We're trying to understand how to make these errors go away. We spent over a decade demonstrating these errors, understanding their sources. Then we're doing some very exciting research to try to find how people better predictions of their own future emotional states. One of the best ways to predict how you're going to feel in the future is simply to find out how other people actually do feel when they experience the same thing.

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