14 April 2013

On the Impact Bias, Happiness and Consumption

Source: flickr

The more I read about how our brains work, the more I get fascinated by how clever and dumb it is at the same time. All these biases we have, created to safeguard us, can also make our lives difficult. Today, I would like to introduce the Impact Bias, or how our brain makes us overestimate the emotional consequences of a future event.

Here is a short and comprehensive document explaining what the Impact Bias is. To summarize, when we project ourselves in a future situation, good or bad, we tend to overestimate the intensity or length of how we are going to feel about that situation.

In other words, we are wrong about what we think we are going to feel in the future. I am sure there are a lot of researchers out there that can provide a more in-depth psychological analysis of this bias, but I wanted to throw in my two cents ideas on how we can be aware of it for the better.

Impact Bias and Happiness

The "bad" side of the Impact Bias can ruin many good moments - simple example: Sundays. How many people say they don't like Sundays? But, for most of us, Sunday is a day off, so it should be one of our favourite days in the week. Yet, in negative anticipation of the work week, most of us ruin our sundays (at least evenings).

I guess there are many other examples of this: stress before an exam, important meeting or doctor's appointment because we fear how awful the moment is going to be. In fact, the stress and dread part might be worse than the moment itself.

But when we brood these negative thoughts and imagine how bad that will be, how about calming down, making a cup of tea and remind ourselves that we are probably overestimating these future emotions right now, then focus back on the present and enjoy the moment instead? It is probably easier said than done, but time after time, it may actually help dealing with stress and the like.

Impact Bias and Consumption

One would think it is good to overestimate the positive emotions of a future situation. And it is, in a way, because it generates a positive mindset and helps motivation with future goals. But let's imagine this future positive situation is about owning something new.

This Impact Bias seems to have effect on our consumption: since we overestimate how happy this new object is going to make us, we buy it. Then, once we have it, we realize we are not as happy as we thought, and lust for a new one all over again. This is one of the components of the consumerist circle.

So, next time you put together a wishlist or think about buying something, remember the Impact Bias. If your motivation to buy this is how happy you imagine it will make you feel, then maybe you should either try to find other reasons for purchase, or reconsider it.

In a way, being aware of the Impact Bias can be a great way to slowly reconsider the emotional attachement we have towards material purchases and consumption, and help shifting priorities back to what really matters: loved ones, self actualization, creation or discoveries...

More on the Impact Bias and Happiness on this TED talk


  1. Impact bias is probably contributing significantly to the fact that I am currently desperately procrastinating from studying a standard operating procedures document for a tiny test that I have to take at work, to qualify me to run some complicated equipment, haha. Stupid impact bias! I've already studied the document before, yet I'm imagining how overwhelming and horrible it will be to have to study again, even though I *know* it's not that bad. But I am an accomplished procrastinator, so...

    I think that impact bias feeds into another situation that drives consumption - we overestimate how happy a purchase will make us, but once we make that purchase and obtain whatever we were after, we also misremember how happy we thought the purchase was going to make us. I wrote about it ages ago when I came across this paper on the topic:
    So the consequence is that we basically never realise that the purchases we think will make us happy rarely do, so we keep making more purchases that never really satisfy us! I've really tried to make myself aware of that and to keep it in mind when I'm thinking about a purchase, and I think I have successfully discouraged myself from multiple potential purchases that way, hurrah!

    1. I heard about that before! The fact that not only do we overestimate how happy we will be in the future with a new item, but we also forget how happy we thought we would be once that item is acquired. I think it was during a TED talk, but I can't remember which one.
      Thanks for pointing that out, it actually makes sense. I mean, otherwise why would we keep buying over and over again after having been disappointed once?

  2. I love this post! Most of my research is based on all kinds of psychological biases and I think it's important to consider that the mere fact that these biases are so deeply engrained in our cognition is a sign that overall they provide an evolutionary advantage or, in other words, we are better off with than without them. The impact bias is something like a by-product of how our moods are programmed to always go back to a medium level. Both extremely negative and positive moods will negatively affect almost everything we do, so regardless of what happens to us, whether we lose a leg or win the lottery, overtime we arrive back at our initial level. I like your thoughts on how the impact bias affects our consumption and I agree: one of the most consistent findings in happiness research has been that experiences have a more intense and longer lasting effect on our happiness than buying something. However, I think that fashion does have the potential to increase happiness, once it extends consumerism and turns into a hobby or a way to be creative.

    1. Yes, I guess brain biases are safeguards, ways for our mind to protect itself against all kinds of crippling emotions or states. But I think they can also hinder our objective judgement and induce bad choices. There is also a TED talk about this - also from Dan Gilbert: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_researches_happiness.html

      I believe it is important for us to be aware of these biases - although we can't really control them, being aware of them can help adjust our conscious behaviour or choices, rationalize in a way. And this is exactly what I'm trying to say with the Impact bias and consumption. Marketing and avertisements actually play with our impact bias, making us believe even more that acquiring a particular item will make us happy.

      Now that being said, it is also true that objects can increase happiness if they are linked to a hobby, like a musical instrument, or fashion/clothing if it is about the art of it, creating one's own outfits etc. But in that case, it is not the acquisition of objects by themselves that create happiness, but rather the way we use them, don't you think?

    2. Yep I totally agree - the mere aquisition of stuff will only make us happy for a short period of time, despite what marketers are trying to tell us, but if we use it as part of an activity or experience it can have a longer lasting effect. Thanks for pointing out the Ted talk, I love dan gilbert's books, so I'm sure this one is great

  3. Great post, Kali! I know I've read about this somewhere else as well, but I totally forgot where - either a blog or a book, I'm sure. I recognize the effects of impact bias in myself when I shop, both when I manage to keep it at arm's length and when I end up making unnecessary purchases because of it. The making of wish lists seem to help a lot for me, because I always end up crossing out/deleting about half my list over time. Even the big "investment" wishes have seemed to vanish over time. I mess up on the little and seemingly insignificant impulse purchases though. Still a long way to go :)

    Have you read the book "Thinking, fast and slow"? I must admit I'm only a chapter or two into it, but I think you would like it!

    1. Once you hear about the Impact bias, it kind of makes sense, right? After reading and viewing all this material about it, I can identify it, for example at the end of the work day when I imagine myself at home with a nice dinner, or on the contrary when I anticipate how long and boring a long trip will be.

      I never heard of that book, but i'll definitely look it up, thanks for the advice!

  4. Impact Bias. Now I have a name for why I never feel quite as happy as I thought when that package from Net-a-Porter arrives in the mail.

    On the contrary, there are those occasional purchases that slip in under the radar, then turn out to be very useful, functional things/garments. A pair of black single sole high heels are what I'm thinking about at the moment--got them 50% off, had them stretched at the shoemaker's so they fit quite well. Very simple and understated, but they go with everything from skinny jeans to skirts and dresses and make the outfit look more pulled together. Once in awhile, those things pleasantly surprise me.

    1. I guess surprises go both ways! It goes with expectations I imagine - since the imact bias makes us overestimate expectations, we can be surprised when we didn't have any to start with.

      I like these little discoveries too, sometimes it's a particular item, or a combination I hadn't thought about before, it feels "right" in a way, spot on, and make outfits easier to put together.