Do we “fear for the worst” or “Hope for the best” in thinking about the unexpected?: Factors affecting the valence of unexpected outcomes reported for everyday scenarios

Cognition 208 (C):104520 (2021)
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Though we often “fear the worst”, worrying that unexpectedly bad things will happen, there are times when we “hope for the best”, imagining that unexpectedly good things will happen, too. The paper explores how the valence of the current situation influences people's imagining of unexpected future events when participants were instructed to think of “something unexpected”. In Experiment 1, participants (N = 127) were asked to report unexpected events to everyday scenarios under different instructional conditions (e.g., asked for “good” or “bad” unexpected events), and manifested a strong negativity bias in response to non-valenced instructions (i.e., being asked to “think of the unexpected” with no valence given). They mainly reported quite “predictable” unexpected outcomes that were negative; however, a post-test (N = 31) showed that the scenarios used were predominantly positive. In Experiment 2 (N = 257), when participants were instructed to think of “something unexpected and bizarre”, under the same instructional manipulations as Experiment 1, this negativity bias was replicated. In Experiment 3, using a design in which positive/negative materials were matched (verified by a pre-test, N = 60), it was found that when participants (N = 102) were given negative scenarios, they reported more positive events than they do when they are given positive scenarios. Though responding still retained an overwhelming negative bias, this result provided some evidence for a weaker valence-countering strategy; that is, where a negative scenario can lead to positive unexpected events being mentioned, and a positive scenario leads to negative unexpected events being reported. The implications of these results for people's projections of unexpected futures in their everyday lives is discussed.



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Katherine Campbell
University of California, Los Angeles