Reaching for the future

September 9, 2016 at 10:10 PM

Reaching for the future


Angela Saulsbery ‘NU 15 and Jim Stellar


Students make decisions all the time about what course to take, what major to pursue, and what career path to follow. Like all of us, they make these decisions based on a projection forward in time about what they think will make them happy.


Psychologists call these projections about future emotions “affective forecasting.” It turns out that decisions based on affective forecasting have been studied for some time by psychologists and behavioral economists, and these processes can have some pretty loopy characteristics. We read a paper that serves as a taking off point in this thinking by Daniel Gilbert, Michael Gill, and Timothy Wilson in 2002. It supplies two examples of faulty affective forecasting: looking forward to a tropical vacation that turns out badly, and dreading a chore that soon becomes fun and engaging.


So why don’t we always know what will make us happy? Where do we make mistakes in our predictions, and how can we improve our foresight?


One cognitive bias that can trip us up is focalism, studied by Wilson & Gilbert in 2005. Focalism is, “the tendency to overestimate how much we will think about [an] event in the future and to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings.” When planning a day trip to the ocean, we imagine lying on a quiet beach, enjoying clear golden sunlight and the feel of warm, smooth sand under our feet. But we might overlook the nuisance of finding a restaurant to eat dinner, the pain of sunburn, or the tension between two travel companions. These annoyances might cancel out the joy of a couple of hours by the sea.


Focalism might come into play when college students choose a career.  Many students glimpse possible careers only through the narrow window of the classroom.  Coursework provides an important but limited view of actual work in a discipline. Learning about a discipline in the classroom is akin to learning about the weather by looking out the window: The day might look fine, but there’s no way to know what the weather is really like until you’re outside. Inside a building as inside a classroom, we lean heavily on the available facts and disregard information that is out of reach. Experiential education programs bring that information within a student’s reach. They also encourage students to use the information about a discipline in a balanced way, relying on its execution as well as just the facts and theories in making a decision about whether this is the career for them.


AS’s early career plans illustrate this idea.  Because she loves writing and logic, she decided to study law.  Her law classes asked her to approach law as a scholar: She wrote opening statements, analyzed case law, and thought a lot about ethics.  Practicing lawyers do all these things, but most lawyers are not academics.  Instead, they are businesspeople.  Law students, however, rarely see how well their love of logic holds up through client meetings and copier jams. Some lawyers thrive under the interpersonal and practical demands of “real world” law practice, whereas others burn out. Perhaps because AS went to a cooperative education university as an undergraduate (Northeastern), she realized that, before she committed to three years of law school, she needed to learn more about the daily life of a lawyer.  She supplemented material from her courses by working in a law firm and a courthouse.  These jobs helped her understand how law worked (or didn’t work) with her temperament, skills, and values. At the law firm, AS noticed that she most enjoyed the rare days that she spent doing investigative work— poring over evidence and organizing data into a coherent narrative. She decided to move on to research and did so in another field she loved – science research.


Gilbert, Gill, and Wilson (2002) also highlight the importance of temporal correction. Temporal correction happens when we consider how the timing of an event will affect our feelings about the event. We are engaging in temporal correction when we eagerly anticipate a spaghetti dinner, but turn up our noses at the suggestion of a spaghetti breakfast.


In career planning, experiential education can sharpen our ability to account for time. Without experience in a field, we can imagine how we’ll like the work for a few days or weeks, but we can’t know how our feelings about it will develop over months or years.


For example, AS has been writing stories since she learned to read. Plenty of data show that her enjoyment of writing endures and deepens over time. She can safely predict that she will still love writing in another twenty years. If someone asked how she would like practicing medicine, however, the question would stump her. What aspects of medicine would she take to immediately? To which would she eventually adjust? Would any part of medical practice ultimately become a deal-breaker? Any answer to these questions would be a stab in the dark. Such flimsy predictions are far from ideal, especially when students are investing several years and thousands of dollars in graduate school.


What we want to introduce now, is that students who participate in experiential education programs may be better at predicting their future happiness, less likely to drop out of the learning experiences as they unfold, and more likely to actually graduate than students who are constrained to the classroom.


We can also build programs of reflection that address these specific tendencies. AS and JS have been doing this together for just over a year, ever since AS graduated and moved to JS’s town. Their relationship has been profitable for both.


Here are what we think are the essential characteristics of any reflection program, whether it is after an internship or in general. First, the reflection program must involve trust, either between a mentor and a mentee or among members of a group. There must be a bond. Second, there must be some product of writing or speaking that involves the attempt to reach back to the immersive experiences. Key aspects of the immersive experiences might also be in the category of implicit knowledge, like the bulk of an iceberg that is hidden from our view. We have to bring that implicit knowledge up to the level where we can talk about it. Then, there must be a realistic plan for going forward. The plan does not have to be certain, but it has to feel right to both the student and the others participating in the reflective exercise. If there is no possibility of action, the whole process loses its steam.




Gilbert, D. T., Gill, M. J., & Wilson, T. D. (2002). The future is now: Temporal correction in affective forecasting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 88(1), 430-444.


Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131-134.



Presence in Experiential Education, Montessori school teaching, and the role of hands-on learning
1 Comment

One Response to “Reaching for the future”

  1. Alyssa Lotmore says:

    Excellent piece.

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