impact bias

In ALL, INTROSPECTION by Stephanie Klein33 Comments

Happiness.  For Charlie Brown, it was finding a little redheaded girl’s chewed up pencil.  For Linus, it’s chasing random pigeons and receiving spontaneous pink belly rubs.  For me, and this is anything but new, happiness was achieved after being thrashed about.  Keep pushing me down and telling me I can’t do something, and I’ll rise up with grace, a smile, and a fist.  Thank you to my most malicious critics for making me feel like an underdog.  The more arduous the plight, the more melodic my victorious battle cry.  I’m taking singing lessons.

I’ve associated accomplishment with happiness before, noting a few exceptions.  So many times we think we know what will make us happy; we predict it.  The Chloé Leather Paddington Bag, the new Treo 650, getting married, having children, a grilled cheese sandwich.  Of course they all don’t hold equal weight, but we imagine these things will delight us.  Often, once we attain the very thing we wanted, we feel a tinge of disenchantment.  It wasn’t as satisfying as we’d anticipated; the high didn’t last as long as we’d thought.  Our favorite toy, the red wagon we begged our mother for, is now atop a discarded pile of abandoned loves.  We all tend to get it completely wrong. 

We do it with pain too.  If you told me one day that the man who truly had my heart would look me in the eyes and lie, without any expressed remorse—ever, and betray me in a horrific and public way, I’d have played a melodramatic card and said, “I’ll never get over this.  I’ll never love again.”  At best, I’d have given myself a decade.  I was wrong; I fell in love again after one year’s time. 

We anticipate we’ll feel pain or pleasure more intensely than we do, and we’re certain it will last far longer than it does.  Our bodies have defenses, and we, far too often, underestimate their power. 

I read The Futile Pursuit of Happiness last night, where Gilbert, a professor in Harvard’s department of psychology, Tim Wilson of UVA, economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon, and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton question the decision-making process that shapes our sense of well-being: “how do we predict what will make us happy or unhappy—and then how do we feel after the actual experience?”  They conclude that bad events prove less intense and more transient than we predict.  Good events prove less intense and briefer as well.  They name the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the “impact bias”—“impact” meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and “bias” our tendency to err.  We overestimate the impact good or bad events will have on our lives.  None of them make the difference you’d imagined they would. 

It’s why when we actually meet someone we’ve waited for we’re unsure if it’s real.  It doesn’t feel quite as we’d imagined it.  The ice cream we’d been depriving ourselves of during a diet doesn’t taste as good as we’d imagined when we actually do sink the metal spoon into the tub of trouble. 

However, sometimes happiness sneaks up on us, surprising us like balloons bobbing on our glass ceilings.  We hadn’t predicted this, and now that it’s upon us, we’re ecstatic; it’s like found money.  Intense emotion is felt when we’re blindsided by an event, when there weren’t visible indications of the sharp turn you were approaching.  He breaks up with you out of nowhere (either you missed the signs completely or you ignored them—either way, the pain is magnified when you don’t have the chance to predict how you’d respond).  Someone phones you to tell you your dreams just came true, out of nowhere.  You never had the opportunity to even imagine the happiness, so you experience it deeply.  There was no expectation.

You get the unexpected news that a loved one is terminally ill.  You’re blindsided by the news, but now there’s time to expect and prepare.  Even with the gift of voicing your goodbyes, the pain you experience is profound; it’s as real as brick.  Would the loss feel graver had she died suddenly, in a fatal accident?  I imagine it would, mostly because frustration would cloud the loss.  Unanswered questions and hopes; no time for preparation.  Impractical items tucked into a suitcase in the middle of the night—you were unprepared.  We can plan and arrange right down to the bottom of our secure to-do lists, but we never know how we’ll really respond until we’re in the thick of it.  Usually, though, when given the opportunity to put on our seatbelts, the whiplash of change doesn’t hurt as much.  Preparation, our defense, dulls the pain.  That same expectation also diminishes our happiness.

So the best and worst we can experience comes when we’re least expecting it, even for Charlie Brown and Linus.  We walk into it with our eyes closed.  Maybe it’s why they say, “it will happen when you stop looking for it.”  The key is not letting it go, savoring it, while we have it, even when we know it might not last.  And when it’s pain, instead of joy, reminding ourselves that it’s our response to the unexpected events, to the malicious words from strangers who cower behind a cloak of anonymity, which will shape who we are.  Respond with fortitude and grace and you might just surprise yourself.


  1. I don't care what those people say. I obviously like reading what you write because I come to the site every day. Keep it up!

  2. I'm fairly certain that you just proved your naysayers wrong with that one (especially the ones who say you can't write). As an English teacher, I would be proud AND unexpectedly delighted to receive your blogpost in my inbox. I, for one, recognize these dissembling critics for what they are: jealous.

  3. Naysayers shmaysayers. I know at least ONE ex-long islander gentleman currently of the West Village who digs reading this website. The public's appetite to hate is appauling and really is total minutiae. What cowards…


  4. it seems like you're just talking in general about happiness, and not necessarily blog comments of the negative variety. reminded me of when Joey and Dawson finally started dating on Dawson's Creek, and she said, "What if the reality doesn't live up to the dream?" Also, my favorite passage in Anne of Green Gables, when Marilla asks her why she floats along on the high of expectation, only to crash down into the depths of despair when things don't go as planned, and she says that it is more exciting to live life that way then just going evenly along. Also, 'expectations are resentments in construction.' i hate and love that phrase. it's so true. but, i'd rather have the euphoria of expecting it, even if it doesn't come true, or not the way i planned.

  5. I disagree to an extent, and I'm not just doing it to be contrary either.

    I think preparation for any intense event obviously helps – fire drills, speech practicing, bank robbery rehearsals, catching the winning touchdown in the last play of the game (even though you hate football), whatever.

    However, I still feel that once you are in the situation it's still intense. Sometimes you may disassociate the experience or you may behave more calmly because either you have practiced or you have become desensitized to the experience – like a rollercoaster.

    However, you never truly know how any single event will necessarily affect anyone. One person may experience their 6th breakup much more severely than their 2nd. Maybe they are older now and feel pangs of age and doubt seeping in and fear of being alone … at 40 (Sally). Maybe they expected more. Maybe they are more disappointed with themselves. Some people recover from things faster than others. Some people may shake a cold faster.

    Of course you will say, "Justin, you fool. You cannot anticipate a breakup, you are only helping to illustrate my point." This may also be true. However, I know from performing that I never fully got over the butterflies. They were always there no matter how many gigs I did and no matter how much practice and rehearsals went in.

    I know that even when I watched people plan for the death of a loved one, it knocked them cold when it actually happened.

    If one is to argue that perhaps preparation lessens the severity of the emotional impact of a psychologically traumatic event … sure I suppose only because the time of preparation factors into the time of coping. However, I do not believe it – just like a seat belt – is foolproof. Oftentimes, all the preparation in the world cannot prepare you for reality.

    However, much of what has been said both in your post and in my comment is common sense. 1) The grass is always greener … and 2) It takes time, but as all things, this too shall pass.

    I think your final thought is actually better explained by Zen or Richard Bach – negative magnitism.


  6. They're looking for a new "bachelorette"…
    I think Stephanie would be a great new bachelorette!

  7. To quote me: "Even with the gift of voicing your goodbyes, the pain you experience is profound; it’s as real as brick." Of course any joy or pain will be real, and it's uncertain how deeply you will feel it at that moment… the point is how often we overshoot our perceived reactions to events. Of course there are exceptions… sometimes pain finds a way of bubbling to the surface of something small when it's left unattended. Still, had we been asked how we'd feel about the hangnail, I doubt we'd respond that it would take a decade to move past. Unless you tend to tread water in Lake Whoaisme.

    Additionally, as I've said, "we never know how we’ll really respond until we’re in the thick of it." It's why I often caveat future tense declarations with, "but I really don't know until I'm in the moment." Moreover, it's why you can't really love someone until the shit goes down. People show colors, primary or otherwise, when they're in the thick of it.

  8. Ah Stephanie, I hate to say it, but Lindsay Robertson has really got your number: (see entry from March 31)- Stephanie, you're a fine writer in a genre that obviously appeals, but perhaps you could be a little more… ummm.. subtle whilst out in public? Just a thought.

  9. I disagree with the premise. I have never met a grilled cheese sandwich that failed to make me happy.

  10. Seriously. All of your painfully public thrashing speaks volumes about who you are.

    I think you have a lot to learn about swimming with the big fish, Stephanie.

  11. That's a good way of looking at things. I've been through the terminally ill relative issue. Certain issues just take time for your mind to reconcile. I think the hard part for us, sometimes, is to allow ourselves to opportunity to set our emotions right, for various reasons.

  12. Great post darlin. I have an opinion I'd like to share…

    When the time comes to make difficult decisions, at work, in a relationship, in battle, in a fight, in an argument, in a meeting, it is ALWAYS better for you and everyone else if you can keep emotions as far out of it as possible, and use your head.

    The right kind of practice, football practice, basic training, kung fu, whatever, teaches you to keep yourself unemotional in times of great stress, so you can make good decisions. Though there is no practice for a sudden breakup, or death, or a car accident, the other kinds of training help.

    A while back I used to teach a leadership training course to Director-level executives from an insurance company. Surprisingly, during the first session, my partner and I were able to uncover just how emotional these people were, ALL THE TIME. Emotions ran these people's lives, all the time, in every decision. We trained them using intense physical/martial arts type confrontation, to try to get used to the feeling of your body freaking out.

    It turns out that the physiological response your body goes through when you are threatened with a knife is EXACTLY the same as when your boss is yelling at you, or your boyfriend is breaking up with you. Training your body to keep calm has benefits far beyond the obvious ones in a physical confrontation.

    Now, none of this means you aren't going to be emotional when you find out a person close to you has a terminal illness. To the contrary, the training, or practice, may tell you WHEN it's perfectly OK to let your emotions fly. But you'll find your recovery time is faster, your head is back on more quickly, and suddenly you are the calm, cool, collected one making good decisions.

    Ironically, I found out my mother had a brain tumor during the lunch break of one of these sessions, where I was the instructor. I kept my composure until hours later, when the class was over. I went home and cried and punched a hole through the wall. Then I packed my bags and went home to my family to be the one who was collected enough to listen to doctors and make decisions. Knife fighting helped me to help my mother.

    I don't know exactly how all this fits into your excellent post. I think you are completely accurate, about the surprise of joy or dread. My point is that you can't really train for love or death or heartache, but it is always helpful to find your head somewhere in the chaos.

    Thanks for making me think about this.

  13. i loooove richard bach. "the opposite of loneliness is not togetherness. the opposite of loneliness is intimacy."

  14. But, if you don't have the chance to imagine it…how do you know what it is when you have it?

  15. Thank you for your website. I read it every day. You remind me so much of myself and who I want to be. You take experiences that I've had and put them so eloquently. I think your writing is refreshing and I wouldn't change a thing!!

  16. "The day before the holiday is better than the holiday itself." That was said by an unknown Korean several hundred years ago. He/she said it better in one sentence without writing a book – now that I can respect. It's about "expectation," and you don't need wierd terms like "impact bias" (which actually means almost nothing without the book to self-define it) to re-spin and explain it. In a few hundred years from now, the cannon will laugh at the complete crap produced in our age, nevermind the Internet catalog.

  17. Steph,

    You have posted some fantastic writing today. I sit in my office chair with the numb feeling of morning on me, and awe struck once again at how deeply you feel the things you experience.

  18. Even though having time to prepare for a bad event lessens the blow, it still hurts. In the same way, having time to prepare for a happy event makes it all the more enjoyable, because you know it's coming and you can appreciate it. Kind of like the "coming soon" trailers for big movies.

  19. Some readers bang you over the head Stephanie honey, but Stephanie is one tough broad! (I mean that in a good way).

    Have a nice day, not too early to buy the sun screen lotion!

  20. I think I should have expressed something better when I wrote the response and it's something that gnawed at me hours after I had written it, and that was I disagreed more with the article from which you … paraphrased. In one sense I feel that a lot of what was said was simply common sense … a sort of "duh" moment. Like in Young Einsteain where he tells his mother the physics behind what he just proved and she says "you mean, what goes up must come down". At the same time I think some of it is what I said prior – you don't know how any person will react. Fight, flight, denial (never underestimate …), all kinds of groovy things.

    Overall, I do not think I was as far off from your overall viewpoint. However, I just wish you hadn't felt the need to quote a study that I feel is too narrowminded in its results … based on your paraphrase. Again, I didn't read it.

    Good job.

  21. I don't proofread … until after posting. It's a terrible habit. For example, there are so many thing I'd like to change about what I just wrote.

  22. I love the writing.

    I don't quite get why people are always criticizing the writing style, grammar, or punctuation. Did Stephanie ever ask them to comment on the writing style?

    Keep up the good work.

  23. Sorry, I totally stopped paying attention after "grilled cheese sandwich."

    /stomach rumble

  24. I love your energy! Thank you for sharing it. (I hope it is contagious)

  25. Therefore, by the impact analysis, life is a lot less dramatic than we expect, atleast in terms of intensity if not frequency of emotion. That is a nice thought.

  26. "You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

    – Albert Einstein, explaining radio

    Chris is absolutely right. Some of our most significant relationships and strongest friendships are often with people with whom we have had to be exceedingly patient and overcome numerous misunderstandings.

  27. The body doesn't always know the difference between the excitement and the terror. The adrenaline rush produces the same chemicals and the same sensations. Someplace in between the pain and the elation is the place of modulated peace.

    Seems slow and dull sometimes, but that is where tranquility lies.

    That takes a lot of practice especially with the vicissitudes of life that no amount of prep changes. Having lost family members to suddenly and slowly, I can tell you that the initial time after is different, but over time, it's all the same pain of loss and missing that person.

    Re: detractors and naysayers – keep playing to your own tune. To thine own self be true

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