Projection bias: how your “emotional temperature” impacts your decisions

Reading time: 6 minutes

We constantly make decisions that will affect our lives in the future. That future can be one hour from now (what’s for lunch?) or one year from now (should I hire an assistant?). Unfortunately, the brain has a hard time imagining what our future selves will need. Instead, it takes mental shortcuts and makes choices based on how we feel right now. When this happens, it is the projection bias at play.

The projection bias occurs when we are in a “hot” state of mind and incorrectly assume that our current needs will be the same as our future needs. As a result, we tend to make decisions based on how we feel right now instead of how we might feel in the future. Another way to think about it is that we tend to make decisions that make sense in the moment, but they don’t always work out the way we anticipated.

Projection Bias Illustration

The term was coined by researchers George Loewenstein, Ted O’Donoghue, and Matthew Rabin. The most classic example of projection bias is going food shopping while hungry. If you go to the store while hungry, you will end up buying more food than you need. That’s because you are assuming that your state of hunger will continue for hours. But, once you get home and snack on some pretzels, you will realize that you probably didn’t need to buy three jumbo bags of them.

Why we can’t accurately predict our needs

1. Outside influences. Projection bias can occur because we don’t realize how much exogenous factors — things that happen outside of our control — can influence our decision-making. Take the example of the catalog study. Researchers wanted to know if the weather affected a person’s decision to buy a winter coat and whether they kept it. Surprisingly, the weather influenced both:

  • Shoppers were more likely to purchase a coat on colder days.
  • Shoppers were more likely to return the item if the weather was 30°F (1°C) warmer on the return date than it was on the order date.

Shoppers may not consciously be thinking about the weather when they make purchases like these. But the study shows how factors outside our control, even ones we are not thinking about, can influence our choices.

2. Overestimating impact. When we are faced with significant life events, like moving or changing careers, we often believe that they will have a long-lasting impact on our lives. For example, how happy would you feel if you just learned you won the lottery? How long do you think that feeling would last?  It’s a life-changing event. Surely the extra cash will keep you happy for a long time, right? Not quite. 

Researchers gathered a group of lottery winners that won $480,000 on average in the past 12 months. They asked the lottery winners and the control groups to rate their happiness. The study found that lottery winners were no happier than the control group a year after winning. In fact, lottery winners reported less pleasure in completing daily activities compared to the control group. Assuming that winning the lottery will keep us happy for years to come is another example of a projection bias error.

3. The heat of the moment. We make choices for our future selves based on our current emotional state. If we are calm, cool, and collected, we may have an easier time making rational decisions. But suppose we get caught up in the “hot” state, where we feel intense emotions. In those cases, we tend to underestimate how much those emotions are influencing our choices.

Think about a couple that elopes after dating for two weeks. This couple chose to wed in the “heat of the moment”; caught up in the passion and romance of the early days of the relationship, their emotions led them to make a short-sighted decision. When things cool off in a month or two, they may find themselves wishing that they waited a little bit longer before jumping into marriage.

How to avoid the projection bias

We tend to plan our work days while we are in a rested state. When we are relaxed, we believe we can definitely attend three meetings, finish a project proposal, and attend a networking event with the same amount of energy all day long.

However, by mid-day, we realize that we are a little more tired than anticipated. We are moving more slowly; maybe we’ve lost track of time. Instead of doing the project proposal and the networking event, now we have to choose between the two. Which one is most important? By this time, research suggests we may be too exhausted to figure that out. 

Being aware of projection bias doesn’t always mean you can change behavior in the moment. But there are still some things you can do to ward off its influence:

  1. Check your emotional temperature. We can get so swept up by stress and anxiety that it disrupts our ability to make good choices in real-time. When you have to make decisions in this state, take a moment to check your temperature before doing so. How are you feeling right this second? Do you think you are in a “hot” state of mind?What small steps can you take to help lower your temperature before you make a decision?
  2. Cool off.  If you think you’re in a hot state and you know you don’t have to make a choice right away, take some time to cool off. Maybe you walk away from the conversation for a day, two days, a week – however long it takes. You can return to the decision when you are in a rested, calm state of mind.
  3. Reflect. Take some time to reflect on your energy levels and work habits during the week. At the end of each day, ask yourself: when did I feel the most energetic? When did I start to feel tired? Did I accomplish all of my tasks when I was fatigued? Should I have moved some of these tasks to a different time in the day? We all have our natural clocks, which don’t always have a 9-5 schedule. Finding the rhythm that works best for you can take the guesswork out of what future you may need and help you spend your energy accordingly.

As with many cognitive biases, being aware of the projection bias is the first step in avoiding its worst effects. Practice self-reflection and stay aware of your emotions so you don’t incorrectly assume that your current needs will be the same as your future needs. And don’t forget that the projection bias may affect not only your own decisions, but the decisions of people around you — including your friends, family, colleagues, and customers.