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Prospection, Well-being, and Mental Health

by Andrew MacLeod 

That we remember the past is obvious. But as well as the ability to recall what has already happened to us, we are also able to imagine what might happen to us in the future. Is this capacity for prospection important? Absolutely. Being able to anticipate what might happen and take relevant steps, prioritise goals, and form plans of action for what we are going to do have been fundamental to our evolutionary success. Prospection underpins most of what we do on a daily basis, enabling us to navigate our way through the complexities of life. But surviving, reproducing, and functioning, fundamental as they are, do not tell the whole story about what most of us would think of as a good life. We also want lives that are happy. How is prospection important for this kind of emotional well-being? This question has been at the heart of what I have spent the last 30 years researching.

Prospection is complicated and difficult to study. It is less definite than memory because we are referring to things that have not yet happened, and might never happen. It is also made up of quite varied mental states. For example, having a general optimistic outlook that the future will be good is very different from having a detailed picture in mind of a scheduled happy event in the future, like one’s wedding day coming up. Both of these are different from having a personal goal that one is working towards or making a prediction that one’s favourite team will win the league.

Memory researchers, such as Dan Schacter at Harvard University, have turned their attention to prospection in recent years, bringing with them some of the useful concepts and methods from memory research. One of the things that Schacter and his colleagues have contributed is a taxonomy of prospection. According to this taxonomy, we make predictions about the future, simulate (imagine) detailed future events, form goals and intentions about things that we want, and make plans of action to take us towards our goals. There are probably other ways we think about the future too, like our underlying assumptions and attitudes about the future, but this taxonomy is a helpful way of organising the varieties of prospection.

During the past 30 years of my research into prospection, I have had some surprises along the way. For example, early on we discovered that people who are depressed, even those who are suicidal, have no more thoughts than others do about negative things in the future, that is, things that they are not looking forward to or dreading. They only show a marked reduction in being able to think of positive things they might look forward to. In contrast, those who are high in anxiety have no problem thinking of positive things in their future; the problem they have is they find it all too easy to bring to mind negative future possibilities. Another approach we have taken is to ask people about their personal future goals. Somewhat to our surprise, even those who are suicidal are able to list their goals without much difficulty. What they struggle with, though, is thinking about the steps they could take to get to their goals, as well as believing that they will get there. This state of painful engagement – knowing clearly what one would like in the future but feeling it is out of reach – is likely to be particularly harmful, especially if someone is unable to detach from these goals and engage with new ones.

Although much has been uncovered about prospection and well-being, there are still many interesting unanswered questions in this undeveloped field. How accurate or inaccurate are people who are depressed or anxious in their predictions about what will occur to them in the future, and how do they imagine they will feel at that time? Does accuracy actually even matter? If accuracy does matter, can people be made to be more accurate through, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy? If people are not good at simulating positive future events, can they be helped by techniques that might improve simulation ability? Similarly, can helping people to tune into important goals and learn planning skills help them to move towards goals that they previously felt were out of reach? The hope is that by understanding more about the ways prospection is implicated in different emotional problems, we might be able to develop more effective means to help people think about the future in ways that help, rather than hinder, them.

Read Chapter 9, Temporal Orientation and Mindfulness, free throughout September.

Originally posted on the OUP Blog, July 2017.