Mind games and decision making.
Do you have any idea how terrible humans are at predicting the future? I’ll give you a hint…. really shitty. Making this realization will actually improve your decision making.
Most of the articles I’ve read online on this topic focuses on how our past memories affect decision-making. Let’s look at how imagining the future affects our decisions.
How we predict the future depends heavily on how we are feeling at the moment. That is why when you go grocery shopping on an empty stomach you tend to purchase more items than you wanted to and not enough items when shopping on a full belly.
Let’s imagine that you are fighting a wicked cold and there comes a point after a few days that you can’t remember ever feeling any different. You start to think that you will always feel this way. You are predicting that how you’re feeling at the moment is how you’ll feel in the future. This is because how you are feeling in the present always overrides how you imagine you will feel in the future.
Making good decisions is essential to living a fulfilling life. Being able to more accurately predict how these decisions unfold will reduce the feelings of guilt or regret. Knowing how our brain imagines the future will lessen the chances that our decisions will have an undesirable outcome.
All my research for this post came from the book Stumbling on Happiness, which I highly recommend. It gives an eye-opening insight into how the mind views the world.
Here are 5 facts about how the brain views the future:
1) Future events always transpire differently than we imagine.
- There are too many factors and variables that are impossible to envision.
- There are things that you cannot anticipate.
- We fail to account for all life events before and after a decision that will influence the outcome.
You decide to buy that BMW that you have always wanted, even though it’s more than you wanted to spend. You envision yourself cruising down the open road feeling awesome in your shiny new car, going on road trips in style.
After six months it’s time for the first oil change and you are told that the car requires special oil which is more expensive. The dealership is the only place where you can have servicing done and it’s also more expensive that local shops. Over time you realize that your new car is expensive to maintain.
The servicing is expensive, it costs more to buy new tires, your insurance rates went up. You get tired of cleaning it every week and get frustrated when the door gets dinged and the windshield receives a crack. Holy shit, this decision turned out to be a money pit. You end up selling the car because it was more of a headache than it was worth. You failed to imagine how buying the car would impact your life. You were focused on how the car was going to make you feel and ignored other variables.
2) The worst things we fear about the future will almost never happen.
- This usually applies to anxiety
- Toxic anxiety convinces your mind that the worse case scenarios are much more likely than they are in reality.
- In reality, you can handle anything that life will throw at you.
- look back at previous moments in your life and you will realize that you survived all of them.
- Our mind leaves out the fact that what you fear has actually never occurred.
When you are deep in an anxiety attack your toxic anxiety overtakes your logical thinking and convinces you that your worst fears are inevitable. You refuse to accept what your mind is telling you and you go that party or get on that elevator. You take a couple of deep breaths and you begin to calm down and realize that nothing terrible happened. And guess what, this is the outcome every time.
3) The brain will use the fill-in trick when we remember the past and imagine the future.
- It’s just not practical to remember every detail for every day of our lives. So the brain is selective of what is remembered.
- When we need to recall a memory we only remember the key components and our imagination fills in the rest.
- Memory uses the fill-in trick but our imagination is the fill-in trick.
- Not only does the brain use the full-in trick when imagining the future it also uses the leaving-out trick.
4) Our current views of the present will affect how we remember the past and predict the future.
- That is why all science fiction movies about the future look and feels like today. Just on a different planet or with more zombies.
- When we try to remember how we felt about our spouse, friend, or co-worker a year ago we tend to remember them as we currently feel.
- This also goes for our political and religious beliefs. We believe that our views have always been the way they are in the present.
5) We find it difficult to imagine that we’ll ever think, want, or feel differently than we do today.
- When we’re feeling anxious we believe that this is how we will feel forever.
- It’s hard to imagine that we will feel different than we do at the moment.
- Have you ever made a commitment and when it was time to fulfill that obligation you thought to yourself what the hell was I thinking when I made that decision? This is because we feel different about future events then we will when we’re actually experiencing them.
- When the brain uses the filling-in trick to remember the past or predict the future it uses what it knows from today to plug those holes.
- Not only does our brain previews future events it also prefeels future events.
- Our current feelings will interfere with our prefeelings of a future event.
6) We’re fairly good at predicting tomorrow or next week and terrible at predicting next year or longer.
- The further in the future we try to predict the less likely we’ll be accurate.
- This is because the number of factors will increase the further in the future you go.
- Think of it this way. When we think of the near future such as tomorrow we can picture it in fine detail like viewing an object up close. When we think about an event in the far future the image is like viewing an out of focus object on the horizon.
Don’t rely entirely on your imagination for decision making.
You are probably wondering how can you use this information to make better decisions? I was wondering the same thing as well. For decisions that’ll only affect you in the short time then very little. It’s the long-term decisions that you should take this information into consideration. Decisions that could affect you for years or decades to come. Remember that we are better at predicting our emotional response the shorter the time frame.
Imagine that you believe that buying a new house will make you happier, well you are right, in the short term. Over the long term like let’s say more than a year or two then you will probably feel the same as you do for the house you live in now. So was it a good decision to pay all those extra expenses that come with moving just so you can be happier for a year before returning to your current satisfaction. Maybe not, especially if the extra financial burden decreased your happiness level.
How can you accurately predict that you are making a smart decision then? Keep these points in mind the next time you make a long term decision:
- Ask someone who has already experienced it. Their memory of the experience will be more accurate than your imagination.
- Take a close look at how you currently feel about a similar situation or object. How you felt about it in the past is most likely the way you are going to feel about in the future. If you didn’t like the last dog you had you most likely won’t like the new dog you are thinking of getting.
- How you feel about someone today does not mean that is how you have always felt about that person or how you will feel about them in the future.
- How you feel is more accurate when you are closer in time to the decision. You might have felt a year ago that going to the family reunion was a great idea only to feel completely the opposite when it is only a week away.
Understanding how we envision our future decisions will help us avoid costly mistakes or at least more accurately anticipate the outcome. We will never be perfect at predicting our future but knowing as much information as possible will at least shed some light on our path instead of constantly stumbling around in the dark. I highly recommend the book Stumbling on Happiness, it will give you an understanding of how the mind works which I’ve found invaluable to living a happier life.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this post. It was a difficult topic for me to dive into, so your opinions and comments would be helpful. Please share and post on your favourite social media site. As always you can find me on Facebook.