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Choiceology: Episode 7

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Whether expecting joy or despair, we tend to overestimate the long-term emotional impact of life events.

Imagine you’ve just been through a major life event: The birth of a child. A major award. The loss of a job. A divorce. Now picture yourself 10 years in the future and try to imagine how that event affected your overall well-being. Research shows that—more often than not—your predictions will miss the mark. Why is that?

On this episode of Choiceology with Dan Heath, we examine a bias that influences the way you believe you’ll feel in the future.

  • The show begins with a quick survey based on the work of psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson. The survey demonstrates—in a surprising way—our tendency to misjudge the importance of future events.
  • From there we raise the stakes with two very dramatic stories from the opposite ends of human emotional experience. Diann Roffe describes the elation she felt after a stunning athletic achievement, and Scott Fedor shares the harrowing story of a life-altering injury. And while these events were totally different, you may be surprised to learn how they affected Scott and Diann’s lives over the long run.
  • Then, Boston University professor Carey Morewedge explains how this bias works and offers suggestions to help you re-examine your greatest hopes and fears.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. And if you’d like to help shape the future direction of the show, please consider taking this brief survey.

Click to show the transcript

Dan Heath: Hi, Im Dan Heath, and this is Choiceology. Were at a neighborhood brew pub to conduct a quick survey.

Interviewer: Ten years ago, what was your favorite musical act or band or singer at the time?

Interviewee 1: Probably Spoon 10 years ago were my favorites.

Interviewee 2: Probably Death Cab for Cutie.

Interviewer: Do you remember what your favorite band was 10 years ago?

Interviewee 3: I really liked Green Day probably 10 years ago. 

Interviewer: If Green Day came into town today, whats the highest price youd be willing to pay for a ticket?

Interviewee 3: $20.

Interviewer: If Ja Rule were to come to town today, how much would you be willing to fork out to see him today?

Interviewee 4: Like $10.

Interviewer: $10. Whos your favorite band or musical act today?

Interviewee 3: Right now? The Strokes.

Interviewer: If the Strokes were to come to town 10 years from now, 2028, whats the most you think youd be willing to pay for a ticket?

Interviewee 3: Probably $100.

Interviewee 1: Right now? Its Pentatonix. For them Id probably … 10 years from now, $125.

Dan Heath: Did you notice that the people we spoke to, they were willing to pay more to see their current favorite band 10 years from now than they were to see their favorite band from 10 years ago today? Why is that? Well, this survey based on the work of psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson demonstrates a tendency we all have. When we look through time and try to imagine how much well like or dislike something, we tend to miss the mark. The people we spoke to just proved that their current taste in music changed from the past. Green Day isnt on repeat anymore, but they had a harder time imagining that their taste would change again in the future.

This phenomenon happens with little things in life like musical taste, but it also affects how we think about bigger events, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, all the things you would expect to have the greatest impact on your emotions. On this episode of Choiceology, two stories from the opposite ends of human emotional experience. One from the heights of athletic achievement and the other from the depths of physical despair. Two stories that will change the way you think about future challenges and successes in your own life.

This is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. Its a show about decisions and the impact those decisions have on our lives, but its also a show about subtle human biases that push us in one direction or another, often without us even realizing it. We try to give you some tools to fight back against those psychological forces and to help you avoid costly mistakes. Before we get started, I should warn you that there are some intense emotional moments later in this episode that some listeners may find uncomfortable or upsetting.

Diann Roffe: All right. My names Diann Roffe and I live in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

Dan Heath: Diann is a downhill skier.

Diann Roffe: I grew up in upstate New York skiing. Skiing was just something that my family did. My parents often told me, You cant pick your parents, Diann, and were going skiing, so your brother and you are coming. We didnt really have the option to not be skiers, and my parents I guess were fortunate that I actually loved it.

Dan Heath: She loved it so much she made it her life. By the age of 17 …

Diann Roffe: I was swept up the U.S. Ski Team and was able to qualify for my first World Championships. I was the last one named to the team, and I ended up winning the World Championships. I thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread of course. I was immortal in my mind at that time.

Dan Heath: Diann competed in the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, and won a silver medal in giant slalom. Afterward, a knee injury laid her up temporarily, but that just led her to work harder to make it to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Diann Roffe: I was luckily named to the team in super-G and GS.

Dan Heath: Dianns specialty was the super-G. Its like a slalom course where the skier has to navigate tight turns through gates on the way down the hill. Unlike slalom, super-G is all about speed. It takes incredible skill, strength, agility and nerves of steel to compete.

Its race day, February 15, 1994. Skiers raced one at a time, and Diann is the first competitor.

Diann Roffe: I remember sliding into the start house. The coach was drowned out completely because of the sound of the cowbells. Theyre on the side of the slope ringing these cowbells and cheering because they were anticipating the start of the first racer. It was quite a bit of noise and cheering, and I remember hearing it. Then once I kicked out onto the course, I didnt hear the cowbells, I didnt hear the cheering. I heard the wind in my ears. Mostly it was self-talk to myself saying, Come on, Diann. Come on. Go. Go. Go. Go. Come on. Come on. I was more aggressive than I had been I think all year.

I go through this run, and at one point my left ski was up by my ear, and it needed to be on the ground. I yelled at myself to throw my foot back on the ground and keep going. I got through the finish and I was completely overwhelmed. It was a performance of a lifetime.

Dan Heath: Since Diann led off the event, she had to wait agonizingly for 40 other athletes to come down. As skier after skier completed the course, none of them seemed to be able to beat Dianns time. Then the final skier completed the course.

Diann Roffe: Everyone came up to me and our head coach said, Oh my god. I dont even know what to say. Thats one of the greatest performances Ive ever seen in the history of sport, because he wasnt even going to name me to the team. He was just grinning from ear to ear thinking, Thank God we named you because you just won a gold medal.

Dan Heath: She had done it. The peak of athletic achievement, an Olympic gold medal.

Diann Roffe: It was an unbelievable feeling. The President of the United States called me and said, Good job. I want to congratulate you on your gold medal. It was wonderful, and it was for that day the best day of my life.

Dan Heath: Imagine, your whole life leads up to this incredibly difficult goal, and you achieve it, a gold medal. Accolades, money, fame. Now you can enjoy the fruits of all the hard work youve put in. I want to pause on Dianns story now. Well come back to it, but first, I want to take you in a completely different direction, and the reason for the detour will make sense later.

Scott Fedor: Hi, my name is Scott Fedor. I currently reside in Westlake, Ohio, a suburb about 10 minutes west of Cleveland.

Dan Heath: Scott graduated from Lehigh University and got his MBA from the University of Michigan. That led to a successful marketing career where he eventually became a vice president of marketing and sales.

Scott Fedor: I was your prototypical type A personality as far as energy, passion, attitude, go, go, go, could never really sit still, always had to be doing something, but was living a great life.

Dan Heath: Scott also had a bucket list.

Scott Fedor: When I was younger, I had actually created a bucket list and literally wrote down a list of 25 things on a piece of paper that I wanted to achieve in my life and carried those with me throughout my life, often referring to them. At the time I wrote them, most of them were very, I would say, adventure oriented, from climbing a mountain to riding a bull in a rodeo for eight seconds, but there are also some serious ones as well, become a father, build a house, write a book.

Dan Heath: Scott Fedor was living the dream, working hard, playing hard, checking off the items one by one on his bucket list, but then there was a dramatic twist in his story.

Scott Fedor: It was July 3rd, 2009. My wife and I were headed up to her parents’ cottage up in Coldwater Lake, Michigan, for the July 4th weekend. We had gotten up there that evening. Beautiful day. Absolutely gorgeous weather. Had just finished eating a great meal outside by the house up top on the hill there. My wife went into the house and came out a short while later and says, Scott, youre never going to believe this. The forecast is calling for rain. I looked up to the skies and I thought, You got to be kidding me. Its absolutely gorgeous out, but figured, OK. If it is going to rain, Im going to get a quick swim in before the weather comes.

Everyone else was inside cleaning up after dinner, just relaxing, so I was by myself. Kind of walked down to the dock by myself where the boat was docked. Took my shirt off, threw it in the boat, felt the sun beating down at my shoulders and dove in. As soon as I dove in, immediately my head slammed into the lake bottom. I felt a twinge and a burning sensation for a split second and then nothing. I had hit my head so hard and at such an angle that it had snapped my neck back and literally broke my neck in half. I immediately started to think, Wow. How did I get in this situation?

Dan Heath: Scott knew this area. In fact, hed been at the same spot just two weeks prior teaching his nieces and nephews to swim, but it had been an extremely hot and dry summer that year. In a matter of two weeks, the water level had dropped dramatically.

Scott Fedor: When I dove in and I hit the water, it was in very shallow water and would later find out that it was 33 inches of water where I had actually hit. I knew I was alone. I was face down. I couldnt move anything so there was no way to lift myself out of the water. No way to scream for help. No way to let someone know what was going on. As I realized this, my heart began to beat faster and louder. It got to the point where it was beating so fast that I literally thought it was going to blow up if I didnt have a heart attack. It was so loud that it was all I heard, that bass just resonating throughout the entire lake. I accepted the fact that this was it.

I said a prayer to God. I asked him to look over my wife, look over my family. Then not knowing what else to do, I decided better to end it quickly than let it drag out. I opened up my mouth and just let as much water as I could just flood into my mouth and stamp out my consciousness. That was the last thing I remember from that day, July 3rd.

Dan Heath: Scott Fedor would have died that day were it not for the sound of a barking dog.

Scott Fedor: Obviously I didnt realize at the time that the family dog had followed me down to the lake and had seen me dive in and started barking. That alerted to my wife up in the house to look up, look out the window. She saw me floating in the water and at first thought I was fooling around and just kind of swimming, but as she sat there and watched for a second longer, her intuition kicked in and realized that something was wrong. She ran down to the dock fully clothed, dove in, got to me, turned me over. When she turned me over, told me that she saw my eyes just roll back into my head and my face go ashen. She started screaming for help, knowing something was wrong.

Dan Heath: The family called 911. For several minutes, they performed life-saving measures to try to get Scotts pulse back. A weak pulse would come, and then they would lose it, and then they would start again. The paramedics arrived 40 minutes later— 40 minutes—due to poor GPS mapping in the area. They eventually airlifted Scott to a trauma center.

Scott Fedor: The immediate days following the accident, laying in a hospital bed were … I remember a lot of what happened, but its as if all the memories were thrown into a pillowcase, shaken up, and randomly pulled out and just placed in some weird non-sequential order. As the days started to roll by, I started to become more aware to the point that a very important meeting had to take place with a doctor to explain my situation. This ended up happening about 12, 13 days after I had been injured. I remember this tall man—buzz cut, thick arms, looked like a military colonel or something—was standing over my body. Very foreboding type of feeling.

More or less matter-of-factly, he said, Scott, youve broken your neck at a very, very high level. This means youre never going to walk again. Youre never going to move again. Youre never going to breathe on your own again. The life that you know that you had for all intents and purposes is over. He then went on to ask me a very profound question that I never thought Id hear in my life. He asked me, Do you want to live?

Dan Heath: At this crucial moment, lets pause again. Here we have two stories. Two people experiencing the opposite the extremes of whats possible in a human life, the highest high and the lowest low. Imagine the emotions they feel at these moments, and imagine how long those emotions will persist. Years? Possibly decades? These are the kinds of events that determine destinies, or are they? Diann Roffe had just experienced the dizzying emotional heights of Olympic alpine gold, but the high didnt last as long as she expected.

Diann Roffe: Six months, a year after the fact, the music stops, and suddenly Im not training or aspiring on a daily basis, putting hours and hours into something that has an end game.

Dan Heath: That changed and her goals and routine began to affect her personal life.

Diann Roffe: My marriage started to fall apart because I was married during the highlight of my career. My husband and I both were involved in my training, my performance, in the victory money, in the appearances, in the sponsorships that came along with that. My marriage imploded. I mean it just crumbled. I was no longer earning as much as money for appearances, but I also didnt have Barbie doll looks. I didnt have that well, TV wants you because youre really cute. Three years after the fact was a really, really dark time. The house was sold. I really found myself in a space where I didnt have much going on that was good.

Dan Heath: Meanwhile, we left Scott Fedor at his darkest hour, making the choice of whether or not he wanted to keep living. It was a choice forced on him legally. Michigan law requires that any individual on artificial life support, if theyre of sound mind, be given the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to live.

Scott Fedor: Up until that point, I had been dreaming about trying to kill myself because I didnt want to live that way, but in that moment something happened where there wasnt a lot of hesitation. A feeling came over me that made me say yes, I want to live.

Dan Heath: Scott made the choice to live, to face the immense challenges that lay ahead. He had lost so much, his mobility, his independence, and soon he would even lose his marriage. Its hard to comprehend how that would feel. How could you come back from something like that? Slowly things did start to get better.

Scott Fedor: It ultimately took months to get to, but through little victories and therapy here and there, through conversations with others, through books I had read, through small incremental improvements, I began to get that attitude back, that proper mindset to realize that, OK, I cant control whats happened or what may happen in the future, but I still have control over my mind, and that I can harness my attitude and make that work for me. It can lead to some pretty powerful things.

Dan Heath: Its been almost nine years since Scotts injury.

Scott Fedor: If I look at the past several years at where my life has gone, I find myself in a position today that Im very grateful to be in as odd as that sounds. Of course, I wish I hadnt broken my neck, but Im very happy with my life. Its a feeling that—in those immediate months following my injury, laying in a hospital bed—I never thought in a million years I would get again. The first thought that popped in my mind when I woke up each morning was, Wow. Im still paralyzed. This sucks. Now I wake up at and that first thought is, All right. I want to get up. I want to get out of bed. I want to get to it because theres things I want to do.

Dan Heath: Despite everything that Scott Fedor went through and all of the challenges he faces today, hes adapted to his new reality. He finds meaning and happiness in his life even though, in the days and weeks and months following his accident, he couldnt imagine that being possible. Remember that writing a book was on his bucket list? Well, hes still working to check that one off.

Scott Fedor: Im still working on that bucket list of mine. Im in the process of writing a book about my story that I hope to have complete in 2018. I hope to get my story out there so that others who may find themselves in a similar situation facing adversity one day can kind of read and know that those clouds do subside, that they do lift and things do improve.

Dan Heath: Meanwhile, Diann Roffe found a way to regain her emotional equilibrium too by redefining her goals.

Diann Roffe: I just kind of went and found a new place, a new job, a new life. Started to eat better. I started to take care of really basic things that made me happy and find out what those things were. That was being outdoors, teaching other people, really becoming happy with myself and my life and sorting out what my goals were and being OK with just being normal.

Dan Heath: Now 24 years after her gold medal, Diann is as happy as shes ever been.

Diann Roffe: Now here I am happily married for 14 years. I have a 10-year-old son. We ski. I teach. I run a race program. I work as a paralegal for a criminal defense attorney. Never saw that coming. Never saw that coming. I have a really normal life and I have a good life. I definitely think Im happier now than I was then, but Im so thankful and appreciative that I got to go through that. Wow. I mean what a great opportunity.

Dan Heath: Ive put links in the show notes if you want to learn more about Diann Roffes inspiring skiing career or to follow some of Scott Fedors inspiring advocacy work. Youve heard two stories that in many ways couldnt be more different, the trauma of Scott Fedors spinal injury and the elation of Diann Roffes Olympic gold medal. Imagine if you were the parent of a newborn and a fortune teller told you that your baby would have one of these two fates, Scotts or Dianns, a nightmare or a dream. Youd live in fear that your child would suffer Scotts fate, wouldnt you? Think about it another way.

Dan Heath: As parents, we want our kids to grow up to be happy adults with the sense of fulfillment, and both Scott and Diann lived lives like that. Why do we imagine such a chasm separating their experiences? Its because we over-extrapolate the most important events in their lives. Scott experienced a nightmare when he broke his neck. Lets not dance around that, but we falsely assume that that will make his life a nightmare, and it didnt. Diann realized a fantasy when she won Olympic gold, and we falsely assumed that her life will be a fairytale afterwards. It wasnt. These are errors in what psychologists call affective forecasting.

Affect as in emotion. In other words, predicting how were going to feel in the future. It turns out there are some major flaws in our forecasting abilities.

Carey Morewedge: My name is Carey Morewedge.

Dan Heath: Carey Morewedge is a professor of marketing at Boston University.

Carey Morewedge: Affective forecasting is an activity we engage in everyday for simple sort of trivial choices and more important ones like choosing whom to marry. Its simply thinking about the emotional consequences of future events or things that we might consider, so if Im deciding what sandwich I want to eat. I could think about how the burger or the tuna salad would make me feel while eating it, how much I might enjoy that sandwich. I could also think about whether or not I should get married or retire or choose a particular job.

When I think about how pleasurable or unpleasant or the guilt or regret or the joy that I might feel having any of these experiences, that kind of emotional forecasting is affective forecasting.

Dan Heath: These affective forecasts influence our decisions. Will this new car make me happy in the future? If so, I should buy it. Will a divorce make me sad forevermore? If so, I should probably fight to make things work.

Carey Morewedge: I might imagine a job to be amazing and it might not turn out to be as good as I think it would be, or I might imagine a vacation to be pretty mundane that might turn out to be better than I expected. We also can think about the particular emotions that different events evoke. That question about are we accurate or inaccurate in the way that we predict different kinds of emotional consequences of events really started in the 1990s.

Dan Heath: Some of the signature work on affective forecasting was done by the professors we mentioned earlier, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson. One study by Wilson and Gilbert and two colleagues found that sports fans had a hard time predicting how happy theyd be the day after their favorite team won a big game. They thought theyd be on a high, but they werent. After all, theres still laundry to do and errands to run and kids to feed. You dont get to spend all of your time just basking in your teams glory.

Carey Morewedge: They looked at other kinds of consequences, too—like they looked at freshmen in college predicting how they would feel if their high school romance dissolved. Lo and behold, after a few months, many of those high school romances did dissolve as college began. People tended to overestimate the pains of despair they would feel upon that kind of heartbreak relative to peoples actual reports.

Dan Heath: What causes this? Why are we so bad at these sorts of emotional predictions?

Carey Morewedge: Theres a couple of reasons why we exhibit this kind of bias. The most sort of central one is when we think about a future event, we tend to simulate that event in a sort of solitary form. If Im imagining how Ill feel if I get a promotion, I might think about the promotion itself, but I tend to ignore the context in which that would take place.

Dan Heath: In other words, we fixate on the one thing that will change, the promotion. Promotion means more money. Well have more power. Well have a fancier title. Those things are awesome, so we think the promotion will make us thrilled, but we forget two things. First, all the things in our lives that didnt change—our spouse and kids and home and commute and laundry detergent. The second thing is all of the ripple effects that might result. Maybe the promotion means more time away from your family. Maybe it adds more stress. Both of those factors will tend to dilute the extra happiness we predicted wed feel.

A great illustration of this comes from a study by Elizabeth Dunn along with Gilbert and Wilson. College students were in a lottery for dorm rooms. There were some desirable dorms, which by the way did not exist in my day, and some undesirable ones. The students were asked to predict their happiness level a year later depending on which dorm they ended up in. This was on a 1 to 7 scale, with 7 being happy. The students on average said that theyd be at roughly a 6 out of 7 in the good dorm and a 3.4 out of 7 in the bad one. Thats a night and day difference. What was the reality?

When they surveyed those same students a year later, students in both the desirable and undesirable dorms rated their happiness at about 5.4 out of 7. Before the lottery, it seemed like the dorm selection would be the difference between hope and gloom, but actually it barely mattered. Thats basically the story of why we cant accept at some emotional level that Scott and Diann are both basically happy adults—because we fixate on Scotts accident and Dianns gold medal, and we ignore the day-to-day and minute-by-minute realities of life that ultimately dwarfed the significance of those dramatic moments. Heres Carey Morewedge again.

Carey Morewedge: I think the take-home message in peoples day-to-day decisions is that a lot of the kinds of events that we imagine have a tremendous impact on our life. Like the death of a spouse or a negative medical result, for example, or the birth of a child, these are all important events in our life, but their affective wake is a lot shorter and a low shallower than we imagine on average.

Dan Heath: What a great term, affective wake, the emotional ripple effects of an event. Morewedge is saying those wakes are not as dramatic as we imagine.

Carey Morewedge: I think thats kind of both saddening and heartening, and we can think about some of the kinds of pains that people are going to endure and some of the kinds of pleasures theyre going to endure are going to be more fleeting than they imagine. I think for the audience its important to think about savoring the pleasures while they can and also knowing that when you feel really terrible about some of kind event that youre going to recover much more quickly than you imagine.

The research also suggests that we may underestimate how much joy we derive from very simple kinds of pleasures like an ice cream or a compliment or a smile or some time with our child. I think that we can take some joy out of that as well.

Dan Heath: Carey Morewedge is a professor of marketing at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University. When we cant predict accurately how well feel about something in the future, it leads us to make bad decisions. Here are two examples from Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson. First, imagine someone considering some kind of cosmetic surgery.

They might imagine that the affective wake of the surgery will be dramatic, transforming their life, but this research suggests it probably wont. What if they spent thousands of dollars and underwent months of painful procedures to reach a future that was less satisfying than they imagined? Conversely, think of a patient with terrible digestive disorders whos faced with a decision of whether or not to accept an ostomy bag. That patient is likely to over-extrapolate the bad consequences of that. The bottom line is we are profoundly adaptable creatures in good ways and bad. If we understand that, maybe we can capture a little more of the good. By the way, Schwab has an article on how affective forecasting can influence not only your investment decisions, but planning for your financial future. You can find a link to that article in the show notes or at Schwab.com/podcast.

Thats it for this first season of Choiceology. Ive enjoyed being your guide. Id like to invite you to share your thoughts and ideas on the direction of the show. Please visit Schwab.com/survey to have your say. Ive also put a link in the show notes to that survey. If youre new to the series, there are six more episodes available for listening anytime for free at Schwab.com/podcast. My personal favorite is the “Summit Fever” episode. Dont miss that one. You can also find Choiceology in your favorite podcast app. I hope youve enjoyed the series so far. If you can, please leave us a review.

It helps other people discover the show. Stay tuned and stay subscribed. Im Dan Heath. Thanks so much for listening.

Disclosures: All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice and reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed. Investing involves risks, including risk of loss.

 

Important Disclosures:

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions.

Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

Apple Podcasts and the Apple logo are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.

Google Podcasts and the Google Podcasts logo are trademarks of Google LLC.

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