You’re sitting in a doctor’s office. The nurse comes in to tell you that you have to get three shots, but you’ll need to wait a half an hour before someone can come administer them. He leaves the room, and your palms start to sweat. You hate shots. All you can think about is the scent of the alcohol swabs and those sharp silver needles harpooning your arm. But later as you drive home with band-aids on your arms, you think “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” Now imagine instead holding a lottery ticket as you wait for the announcement of the winning numbers. The exhilaration of possibly winning a hundred million dollars overwhelms you as you imagine all the extravagant ways you could spend the money. You can almost taste how happy you would be, even though people who win the lottery typically don’t end up any happier after winning the lottery, and indeed may even be more miserable. What is it about anticipation that can make us bite our nails in terror or thrill us with intoxicating possibility, even when the outcomes are almost never as scary nor as wonderful as we imagine them to be?
One possible reason for the greater emotional intensity of anticipation might be that future events are uncertain, and uncertainty arouses stronger emotions than things we have already experienced. However, what about occasions when uncertainty is unlikely to play a role, such as when we’re anticipating a familiar event? Adult women are highly familiar with menstrual periods, and expect them every month. But women still express more negative emotions when anticipating their upcoming period than when thinking about a previous period. Emotional anticipation cannot feel more intense simply because future events are uncertain if anticipation is more intense even when the event is a frequent and familiar occurrence.
Emotions of anticipation are also stronger even when you’re thinking about an altogether imaginary event. If you ask someone to imagine that they won a luxury ski trip that will happen six months from now, they would rate their expected emotions more positively than if you ask them to think about how much they would have enjoyed a ski trip six months ago. Simply orienting someone to a future event rather than a past event will increase the intensity of the emotions they imagine they would experience. An entirely made-up event would be equally unfamiliar whether you pretend it happened in the past or in the future, yet there is still a difference in how people imagine they would feel.
So if level of familiarity cannot explain the intensity of anticipatory emotions, what can? The answer probably lies in how we think about the events. We tend to mentally simulate future events in greater depth than past events. For example, when thinking of a past Thanksgiving, we may remember what happened or what we had for dinner. But when we anticipate an upcoming Thanksgiving, we might imagine how the turkey will taste, how the house will be warm and full of family and friends, how it will feel to doze after the meal with a football game blaring in the background. Increased mental simulation creates increased emotional engagement, bringing greater intensity to emotions of anticipation.
So when you find yourself in the doctor’s office waiting anxiously for the nurse to come in with some big fat syringes, know that sitting and mentally playing out the upcoming event will probably be worse than the event itself. You might try thinking about how you’ll feel on the drive home instead. Or if all else fails, try thinking about an upcoming ski trip instead…whether you actually have one coming up or not.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36 (8), 917-927 DOI: 10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.2067
Van Boven, L., & Ashworth, L. (2007). Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136 (2), 289-300 DOI: 10.1037/0096-34220.127.116.119