Categorized | Psychology

Anticipating One’s Troubles

Updated: Dec 7, 2009

Our emotional well-being benefits when we have positive expectations and suffers when we have negative expectations. This holds true irregardless of the actual out come of the anticipated turn out of events. Prior to knowing how things will turn out, positive expectations generate a pleasant state of savoring while negative expectations generate an unpleasant state of dreading what is to come.

Exactly this was shown by Sarit Golub, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson (2009) to be true in their field study with Harvard undergraduate students. Two days after they took a mid term exam, each student was asked (1) to rate what grade they expected, (2) how they felt while waiting (3 days) to get their grades back, and (3) how they felt a after (1 day) they had received their grades.

“In short, participants with positive expectations felt better 3 days before receiving their grades but did not feel worse a day after actually receiving them, whereas participants with negative expectations felt worse 3 days before receiving their grades but did not feel better a day after receiving them.” (Golub, Gilbert, Wilson, 2009, p. 280)

Table 1 Costs and Benefits of Expectations
Event Positive Negative
Positive Pre-event benefit = Savoring Pre-event cost = Dread
Postevent cost = Attenuation Postevent benefit = Amplification
Negative Pre-event benefit = Savoring Pre-event cost = Dread
Postevent cost = Amplification Postevent benefit = Attenuation

(Golub, Gilbert, Wilson, 2009, p. 278)

Golub, S. A., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2009). Anticipating one’s troubles: The costs and benefits of negative expectations. Emotion, 9, 277-281. [free full text PDF]


Although negative expectations may have the benefit of softening the blow when a negative event occurs, they also have the cost of making people feel worse while they are waiting for that event to happen. Three studies suggest that the cost of negative expectations is greater than the benefit. In 2 laboratory experiments and a field study, people felt worse when they were expecting a negative than a positive event; but once the event occurred, their prior expectations had no measurable influence on how they felt. These results suggest that anticipating one’s troubles may be a poor strategy for maximizing positive affect.


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  1. […] S. A., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2009). Anticipating one’s troubles: The costs and benefits of negative expectations. Emotion, 9, 277-281. […]

  2. […] S. A., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2009). Anticipating one’s troubles: The costs and benefits of negative expectations. Emotion, 9, 277-281.  [full text […]

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