By the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (www.pon.harvard.edu)
How happy do you think you'll be if your candidate wins an upcoming election? How happy will you feel if your favorite sports team wins its next national championship? Now imagine how upset you will be if your candidate narrowly loses the election or if your team just misses winning the championship.
If you're like most people, you just committed an error in judgment: You overestimated how happy a win would make you and how devastating a loss would feel.
Across the board, people predict that future events -- whether a World Series win, a promotion, or even the death of a loved one -- will have a strong, lasting impact on their happiness, psychologists Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia have found. Yet when such events come to pass, they have a lesser long-term effect on happiness than people expect, a phenomenon that Gilbert and Wilson call the "impact bias."
In negotiation, the impact bias can lead us to make mistakes when choosing what will bring us pleasure or spare us pain, a phenomenon Gilbert has labeled "miswanting." Although miswanting has both pros and cons, overall you'll benefit from thinking more carefully about what might make you happy.
People overestimate the intensity and duration of their emotional responses to a wide array of events, according to Gilbert, Wilson, and professors George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University.
As an example, in a 1998 study, Gilbert, Wilson, and several other colleagues asked a group of assistant professors facing tenure decisions to predict how being granted tenure would affect their overall happiness over time. When they imagined being denied tenure, the assistant professors expected they would be significantly less happy for about five years than if they were awarded tenure. The researchers also surveyed two groups of former assistant professors about their happiness, those who had been awarded tenure and those who had not. Those denied tenure reported being just as happy as those who had received tenure, even when their tenure decisions were recent.
In similar studies, groups of students, voters, newspaper readers and job seekers all overestimated their unhappy reactions to failed romances, political defeats, upsetting news and personal rejections, respectively. We accurately expect that we'll be cheered by good fortune and upset by bad news, but we err in assuming how strong and lasting that mood will be.
Why do we have so much trouble anticipating the strength of our feelings? Because, when we imagine a certain outcome, we focus too much on how it will affect us and too little on other events in our lives that will be occurring simultaneously. You might expect that you'll be ecstatic if you procure your dream job. But if someone in your family becomes seriously ill around the same time you get the job, you may be too distracted and worried to enjoy your new role.
In addition, when making choices, we tend to focus on large differences between options and overlook similarities that could affect us more. In a study with Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia, for example, Wilson and Gilbert found that undergraduate students who were randomly assigned with groups of friends to various dormitories underestimated how stable social factors would influence their happiness and overestimated the effect of obvious physical differences between the dorms, such as location, on their happiness.
We also overlook the impact of minor annoyances on our lives. Suppose your dream job requires you to share an office with a co-worker who talks loudly on the phone all day. Your low-simmering irritation, something you never considered during the job interview, could overshadow the satisfaction you gain from the work itself.
Finally, negative events such as a job loss, divorce or death in the family can trigger powerful defense mechanisms, or what Gilbert calls our psychological immune system. Human beings have an innate self-protective tendency to make the best of bad situations. Surprised by a business dissolution, we suddenly recognize our former partner's shortcomings. Turned down by a customer, we find a new one and convince ourselves it is the perfect match.
Because our brains are wired to adapt to changing circumstances, we tend to return to a set level of happiness after a boost or a setback, say scholars in the field of "positive psychology." As each new achievement becomes ordinary and less pleasurable, we seek out the next one that we think will bring us lasting happiness.
Does that mean negotiation is a pointless enterprise, one you're doomed to repeat in an elusive quest for greater happiness? On the contrary: The prospect of delight and the fear of disaster can be powerful motivators for positive change, whether that means winning a new contract, getting out of a destructive relationship, advocating for your children's safety, or finding a better job.
Yet a keener understanding of what will make you happy can help you make better choices in negotiation. In particular, keep in mind that vivid fears and desires as well as obvious differences between options are likely to capture your attention. Balance these concerns by factoring other issues that will affect your happiness into the equation. Research shows that money does not correlate strongly with lasting happiness, for instance, but that friendships and other social ties do.
For negotiators who agonize over hard choices, awareness of the impact bias can bring solace. Knowing that you're likely to bounce back from adversity may free you to take calculated risks, and overcoming unrealistic expectations may promote greater long-term contentment.