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A Harvard psychologist offers evidence of an 'emotional immune system' -- and suggests that we could take more risks in life

By Interview by Michelle Chihara

MARCH 29, 1999:  After suffering through six of the seven major bummers on the life-stress index -- among other things, he got divorced, his mother died, and his son dropped out of school -- Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert came to a surprising conclusion: he was okay. It all hurt, but it hurt less than he had thought it would.

Intrigued by his own resilience, Gilbert turned his curiosity about how we think we're going to feel -- what he calls "affective forecasting" -- into a research project. By studying people's emotional predictions and comparing them to their emotional realities, both in the outside world and in controlled experiments, he discovered something interesting: we are consistently bad at predicting how we will feel.

Gilbert's work, done in collaboration with professor Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, suggests that most people underestimate their own ability to make the best of life's curve balls. In his current work, he looks at our oft-ignored ability to rationalize, which he considers one of our more useful life skills. Although we tend to be embarrassed when our rationalizations are exposed, Gilbert's research suggests that we should embrace our human ability to -- as the cliché puts it -- take lemons and make lemonade.

Still in his 30s, Gilbert is the chair of the program for social psychology at Harvard and the editor of the industry bible, The Handbook of Social Psychology (Oxford University Press). His previous work on human judgment has garnered him awards and grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Gilbert plans to spend his sabbatical next year turning his current research on affective forecasting -- or "mis-wanting," as he also calls it -- into a general-readership book.

Q: You've said that it might be wiser for people to act on their hopes and not on their fears.

A: Well, unfortunately, both hope and fear are probably a bit unfounded. But fear is more unfounded. In our studies we found that we're wrong about how we're going to feel after negative events. We're wrong about how we're going to feel after positive events, too. But we're much more wrong about negative than positive events. The overestimation is much bigger for negative than for positive events.

Q: Can you describe some of your fieldwork?

A: We did one study where we asked people to predict for us how they would feel about two months after experiencing a romantic breakup -- a breakup from a romantic relationship that had expectations of monogamy, enduringness, etc. Not just somebody you had been dating, but a real romantic relationship. Then we found people who had experienced a romantic breakup within the last two months. We compared the predictions of the first group, whom we called "forecasters," to the experience of the second group, people we can call "experiencers" [see chart].

What we find is that everybody is equally happy. The only thing that's really departing here is that the forecasters think they're going to be way sad.

We're not saying that breaking up isn't hard to do. Of course it's hard to do. Part of being in love, really in love, is saying, "I could never live without you." We want to believe that if you left me, my life would be over. That's part of the illusion of the relationship. But the truth is, in almost any instance, we'd be fine.

Q: Eventually.

A: Eventually. How long would it take? Nobody can say, but I'd put money on this: it'll take less time than you think. I'm starting to sound like a grandmother. There's a lot of wisdom in what grandmothers like to tell us.

Q: You're saying that people hike up the importance of decisions and then act on fear? That everything won't fall apart in the way that we think?

A: Exactly so.

Of course, the physical immune system can't keep you alive forever and stop you from ever getting sick; I think the same is true of the psychological immune system. But ask any parent what the worst thing he or she could imagine experiencing is, and they will all tell you unequivocally: it's the death of a child. There is no doubt that the death of a child is one of the most traumatic events psychologically, and it leaves scars that last forever and ever. But people get better than they think they would, faster than they think they would, even after the death of a child. Even with the most traumatic event people can imagine experiencing, more good comes of it than we could realize. I'm not saying more good than bad comes of it. Just more good than you could realize, because you predict zero good.

I don't have a prescription for everyone. But I will say that doing this research has changed my own life in a way that no other research I ever did has. I take more risks. I'm not as afraid of the bad things that could happen if my decisions turn out badly.

What's so interesting to me is that people don't seem to know that they have these mechanisms. They're great at using them: we're all wonderful rationalizers. But we don't know we're wonderful rationalizers. How can we be so wrong about ourselves? How can we be such strangers to ourselves?

Q: Did you see the movie Swingers? The main character breaks up with his girlfriend, and is not only unhappy but also unsuccessful for a long time. Isn't he an affective forecaster's worst nightmare?

A: I haven't seen Swingers. But we all know somebody who wakes up in the morning with a hangnail and actually kills himself. There are people who overreact. Everything I'm saying is true about folks in general, but there are always people at the ends of the distribution, at the extremes.

Q: Does the "emotional immune system" work the same way our physical immune system works?

A: Yes and no. It's like the physical immune system in that it's helpful but not all-powerful. There are conditions in life that seem to be [emotional] immunosuppressants -- that stop us from doing a lot of rationalizing. I decide when you've left me that I never really loved you very much anyway, but then a friend comes along and reminds me of all those love sonnets that I wrote to you that are still in the drawer, and my bubble is burst. The jig is up, and I shuffle off sheepishly to find new friends. My immune system has been exposed, I've been shown to be a rationalizer to myself, and as a result my rationalizations don't work.

One of the things that facilitates the immune system is lack of choice. When we have no choice, when we're stuck with something like a governor or a job, the immune system goes to work.

One of the things that suppresses [the emotional immune system] is commitment. One of the techniques we use in the laboratory to stop people from rationalizing is to commit them publicly to an initial point of view. The simple act of saying aloud what their beliefs are makes it very hard for them to change when they're stuck with a different reality.

Q: Can you give another example of people becoming "immune" to a situation that they never thought they could learn to appreciate?

A: We studied an election in Texas where George Bush Jr. was running against the incumbent [governor], Ann Richards. We asked people to predict for us how happy they would be after their candidate won or lost.

Before the election, it turns out that Democrats are happier, which probably has good pharmaceutical explanations. Republicans believe that they are going to be as happy as Democrats already are, if their candidate wins, and Democrats believe they are going to be as sad as Republicans are. They think they're going to reverse positions.

One month after George Bush wins the election, they're almost identical to before. Everybody's a little bit happier because Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat, but the most important thing is Democrats are still happier than Republicans. We asked people, "How will you think of George Bush a month after he wins the election?" And these people went, "What do you mean? I just told you I think he's really good, or I think he's awful. One month after the election my mind is not going to change. I'm not going to feel any differently about him a month after the election."

But a month after the election, the people who supported him aren't quite as enthused about him as when he was just a possibility. More important than that, Democrats have suddenly found a reason to like him. They don't love him, but they don't hate him quite as much as they used to. They found a way to make the best of the situation in which they were, quite frankly, stuck.

Q: In the case of politics, do we really want people to know that they're wonderful rationalizers? Don't we want them to care about which candidate is elected?

A: Somebody once said that if everybody knew about their own immune systems, we'd be living on a kind of Zen planet where everybody would say, It doesn't really matter what condition you assign me to.

Q: That's the logical extreme.

A: Exactly -- I'd be fine no matter what happens to me, so really, why should I vote, why should I work hard to find somebody wonderful, if all things make me equally happy in the end? It's easy to lampoon this view by pushing it to the extreme and saying nothing matters. But my claim is that whom you marry makes less of a difference than you think -- not that it doesn't make a difference.

[Gilbert flips through his overhead-projection slides. One of them says, "Things I didn't say: There is no God."]

Q: Why would people think you were saying "There is no God"?

A: We've been doing studies now trying to see whether people misattribute the work of their own psychological immune systems to external agents. Do people come to believe that there are wise, benevolent, powerful agencies in the world that are making things turn out for the best?

The point here is that if we have a psychological immune system that makes good things out of bad things, and we don't know it, we should occasionally be surprised by how well everything is turning out in our life. The real reason it's turning out so well is that we're making the best of it. But sometimes we attribute the goodness of our lives to an external agent that is making our lives follow the best of all possible paths. And that external agent could be something like God.

I had an undergraduate student who was so interested in this that she said, "If it's true that part of why we believe in God is because we have this immune system that we don't know exists, and we misattribute its work to external forces -- then religious people should be the best rationalizers."

She goes out and does the simplest experiment in Harvard Yard. She does a cookie-tasting experiment. She has two cookies on the table and she asks people to stop and says, "There's label A and B. Tell me which you like better. But oh, before you do, since I can't pay you anything, I'd like to give you a bag of cookie A to take home with you. Now, I'd like you to taste them and tell me which one you like better."

Cookie A and cookie B are, in fact, the same cookie. So the extent to which you like cookie A over cookie B is a very rough measure of your ability to quickly rationalize. This measure correlates nicely with belief in God. People who are most likely to say, "Yeah, cookie A's the better one!" are most likely to say that they believe in God, or some sort of divine force.

They don't say, "I make the best out of everything." Instead, they say, "The best out of everything happens to me." These people are the best rationalizers and the ones who are most likely to believe in God. So we're pursuing this line of research, as politically dangerous as it might be.

Q: For everyday people, isn't fate, or a supreme force, much more attractive -- a much more trustworthy agent -- than our own emotional immune system, our own ability to deal?

A: Well, you can think of it that way. Or you could think that you're reminding people that they are God.

Michelle Chihara can be reached at mchihara@phx.com.

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