Open your mind for a better future

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Open your mind for a better future

To paraphrase the pop standard, “I got it bad and that ain’t good.”

My crime: nurturing biases in affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is the prediction of one’s affect —emotional state—in the future, which I’ve been studying in my applied neuroscience program.

My brain didn’t consider all the available data when I predicted how I’d feel about a future event, which has led to a major case of “miswanting.”

The real problem with miswanting is that it leads you to want the wrong things and make poor judgments about what will really make you happy, Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert describe in their article Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want.

In my case, my husband and I both thought we’d love to downsize when we moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Charleston, South Carolina last year. After 13 months of living in a two-story “dollhouse” though, we’re selling it and buying a one-story larger place for us, the dog and our stuff.

And yes, we’re moving twice in a short-time period, which is time consuming and costly.

However, rather than mope about “immune neglect”—a poor ability to cope with negative events—we’re practicing “mental contrasting.” This combines positive thinking—and action in our case— with “realism,” which author and professor Gabriele Oettingen suggests as a healthy alternative to either positively fantasizing or dwelling on obstacles.

Is it possible to practice mental contrasting before making costly life mistakes? Yes. Do what I neglected to do.

  • Broaden your perspective to consider the possible impact of all aspects of a decision you’re considering. That helps you avoid “focalism”—underestimating the extent to which related events could affect you. For example, if you’re considering a new position, think about more than the job. Take into account the boss, co-workers, the pay, the benefits, the commute, the industry, the status and anything else that may matter to you. (This sounds like common sense, but it’s easy to overlook all aspects.) Also, ask others who have recently gone through something similar to what you’re contemplating to describe their experiences. I realized I talked with friends and colleagues who were planning to downsize, but no one who had done it yet.
  • Change how you’re framing—that is, positioning— the decision you’re considering. We humans are remarkably gullible based on the way options are presented to us. For example, research shows that negative frames elicit risky responses while positive frames prompt safe reactions, as Benedetto De Martino and his co-researchers explain in their article Frames, Biases and Rational Decision-Making in the Human Brain. By looking at a decision from at least two different frames—such as a new job to advance your career versus a new job to escape a bad boss and petty co-workers— you’re better able to capture the range of emotions you may be experiencing about the event. That’s important since emotions color our decision making more than we realize.
  • Try things out before you make a major change or investment. If you can, experiment first. In the example of the new job, ask if you can do a trial. This may be easier if you’re switching positions within the same organization. With a new organization, it may still be possible to do contract work first before becoming an employee. In my case, we could have tried to rent; however, it was challenging with a big dog in a market with few rentals of any size.

By taking one, two or all three steps that opens up your mind, you’re better able to think through your decision more thoroughly. You also can picture yourself better in the new scenario and identify more accurately how you’ll feel about yourself and the situation. You may not prevent miswanting, but at least it won’t be a severe case that requires more big changes.

How are you opening your mind to envision a better, more accurate future for yourself?