10/11/07 - explanations and emotions

In today's encore excerpt - explanations rob events of their emotional impact:

"Explanations allow us to make full use of our experiences, but they also change the nature of those experiences. As we have seen, when experiences are unpleasant we quickly move to explain them in ways that make us feel better, and indeed studies show that the mere act of explaining an unpleasant event can help defang it. ... But just as explanations ameliorate the impact of unpleasant events, so too do they ameliorate the impact of pleasant events. ...

"For example, college students volunteered for a study in which they believed they were interacting in an online chat room with students from other universities. In fact, they were actually interacting with a sophisticated computer program that simulated the presence of other students. After the simulated students had provided the real students with information about themselves, the researcher pretended to ask the simulated students to decide which of the people in the chat room they liked most ... in just a few minutes, something remarkable happened: Each real student received e-mail messages from every one of the simulated students indicating they liked that student best!

"Now here's the catch: Some real students (informed group) received e-mail that allowed them to know which simulated student wrote each of the messages, and other real students (uninformed group) received e-mail messages that had been stripped of that identifying information. ... Hence, real students in the informed group were able to generate explanations for their good fortune ('Eva appreciates my values because we're both involved in Habitat for Humanity') ... whereas real students in the uninformed group were not (Someone appreciates my values, I wonder who?) ... Although real students in both groups were initially delighted to have been chosen as everyone's best friend, only the real students in the uninformed group remained delighted fifteen minutes later. If you've ever had a secret admirer, then you understand why. ...

"The reason why unexplained events have a disproportionate emotional impact is that we are especially likely to keep thinking about them. People spontaneously try to explain events and studies show that, when people do not complete the things they set out to do, they are especially likely to think about and remember their unfinished business. Once we explain an event, we can fold it up like fresh laundry, put it away in memory's drawer, and move on to the next one; but if an event defies explanation, it becomes a mystery ... and refuses to stay in the back of our minds. ... Explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows us to stop thinking about them."


Daniel Gilbert


Stumbling on Happiness


Knopf, a division of Random House


Copyright 2005 by Daniel Gilbert


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