On Anticipation

by Site Author

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Sumathi Reddy describes how research in psychology can help people plan vacations. Many of her ideas have already been covered on this blog. For instance, the “peak-end rule” suggests that we remember vacations as more fun when the most exciting activities happen on the final day.

Reddy also suggests that people can enjoy vacations more thoroughly if they anticipate each upcoming trip. As she puts it, “anticipating what you will be doing can bring greater emotional rewards than remembering a trip after you return.” So, she argues, people ought to spend the weeks leading up to their vacation salivating over the upcoming treat.

Her suggestion is based on a 2007 paper by two psychologists, Leaf Van Boven and Laurence Ashworth. The psychologists wanted to test whether anticipating a future experience has a different effect than remembering a past experience.

The authors ran five small-scale experiments, all designed to compare the act of anticipation to the act of remembering. The experiments were remarkably simple, and ought to be subject to the appropriate degree of skepticism accorded to small-scale experiments that have yet to be replicated.

To start with, the authors asked 36 undergraduates to fill out a questionnaire both before and after their Thanksgiving break. Before Thanksgiving, the questionnaire asked the undergraduates to anticipate what their Thanksgiving would be like, and after Thanksgiving, the undergraduates were instructed to think back on the break.

At the end of each questionnaire, the students were asked to quantify their current level of happiness. And, it turns out, when they were anticipating their break, they reported being ten percent happier than when they were remembering their break.

The researchers then performed four follow-up experiments. In particular, the researchers were worried that the results were driven by people anticipating a wonderful Thanksgiving vacation, but ending up with a mediocre one. To rule out such an effect, the authors asked the undergraduates to anticipate or pretend to remember a hypothetical vacation. Even when the vacation was entirely hypothetical, the undergraduates still reported being happier when they were anticipating the vacation than when they were “remembering” it.

As the researchers put it, “people report more intense emotion when they anticipate emotional events that are in their future than when they retrospect about emotional events that are in their past.”

Indeed, anyone can validate the finding with a bit of introspection. We’ve all anticipated, with relish, an upcoming vacation, concert, or party. Afterwards, the memory of that experience isn’t nearly as exciting.

The researchers can only speculate as to why anticipating an experience might be more compelling than remembering the same experience. But based on several patterns in the data, they argue that there is simply, at its core, something more stimulating about anticipation as compared to retrospection. Emotions are just more intense when we’re thinking ahead.

On the one hand, there is something disheartening about the study. It suggests that we are constantly duped by life, looking forward to events that then provide little pleasure as memories. We might excitedly look forward to a night out. But as soon as its over, the memory provides little joy. Why do we have to be forever fooling ourselves, thinking that the next vacation will be so great? Why can’t the past bring just as much pleasure as the future?

On the other hand, this kind of research offers one way to deal with a bad day. The thing about anticipation is that it’s always there, available as a tool to lift your mood.

We can strategically anticipate the little pleasures in life. A new magazine, a movie you haven’t yet seen, an evening cup of tea. All of these things provide pleasure in the moment, even if they provide little enjoyment once they’re in the past. Still, anticipating these little things can bring in a bit of hedonism into a day that might otherwise be dreary.