When Emotions Run High: How Stereotypes Influence Affective Forecasting

From a football team’s victory to the results of a political election, people frequently try to predict others' emotional responses to an event — a phenomenon known as affective forecasting in the social sciences.

“Doctors might try to gauge the amount of pain people are in when deciding the kinds of drugs to prescribe them, employers might consider how happy their employees would be made by a smaller or larger holiday bonus, and politicians may consider the pain and distress that people are experiencing when deciding whether to intervene in a humanitarian crisis,” says Mina Cikara of Harvard University.

 Much research has already been done on people’s ability to anticipate their own emotional responses. Cikara and colleagues sought to expand on this work by investigating the effects of an individual’s social group on their ability to predict others’ emotional responses to an event. Their study, published in the October issue of Psychological Science, examines differences in affective forecasting based on social groups using the recent Senate midterm elections and college football. The team first questioned participants about their political affiliation, and then asked them to rate the extent that someone of the same or opposite party would feel if their party won or lost the Senate majority. They also asked the same question without specifying the responding person's party affiliation.

 The group found that people tended to overestimate the emotional response of someone with the opposite political affiliation: Democrats forecasted that Republicans would be happier about the Republican victory than the Republicans actually reported. Conversely, participants much more accurately anticipated the emotions of a person whose political affiliation was unspecified.

The researchers found a similar trend within the context of a football game, in which fans were asked to forecast the emotions other fans would have if their team won or lost.

Although the research team has not yet explored the reasons participants overestimated the emotional response of other groups, they suspect this trend may correspond to the increased political and economic polarization of society.

“While we haven’t explicitly shown a connection between polarization and our effect, it is possible that our observed effect here has a hand in increasing the divide between two groups,” Lau said. “When we overestimate how other members of our own group and the other group feel, and out-group members do likewise, we are building a vicious cycle of expectancy violations that can escalate conflict and other partisan divides, whether at the voting booth, at the negotiation table, or at the trade policy summit.” 

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