Do We Know What Work Feels Like?
Affective Forecasting in Performance Contexts
George Mason University
Department of Psychology
I study the subjective experience of work with a focus on the affective/ emotional parts of that experience. One topic of interest concerns how affect/emotions impact workplace behavior, including performance of job activities (i.e., job performance). Research from our field shows that generalized affect and discrete emotions have statistically significant, but generally modest relationships, with various aspects of job performance such as task performance, counterproductive work behaviors, and safety behaviors.1
Perhaps explaining these modest effect sizes, recent research from social psychology suggests that the impact of affective states on behavior is rarely direct. Rather, affect and emotion function in a more distal and temporally delayed manner.2 That is, forecasts about prospective states (i.e., affective forecasts) guide subsequent action.
Juxtaposed with this research are other findings documenting frequent biases and inaccuracies in these emotional forecasts. When asked how we would feel if diagnosed with a serious illness, denied tenure, going on a vacation, or purchasing a desired item, there is a tendency to overpredict the intensity and duration of emotional responses. 3
Thanks to a generous award from the US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, colleagues Jill Bradley-Geist and Greg Ruark, several graduate students, and I conducted two field studies examining the accuracy and performance implications of affective forecasts in performance/work contexts. The basic study design was straightforward. First, individuals were asked to think of a series of work activities in which they would be participating during the following work week. Using an online survey, they provided descriptions of those activities along with ratings of how they would feel while engaging in the activities. They did so in reference to three negatively valenced states (anger/annoyance, anxiety/worry, and tiredness/fatigue) and two positively affect states (happiness/pleasure and relaxation/comfort). Then, immediately after engaging in each activity, participants reported their “felt” or experienced emotions during the activity. They also made several other ratings, such as perceived performance on the activity, the amount of interaction during the activity, and others.
The two studies provided similar conclusions. First, unlike most previous findings, affective forecasts were generally accurate here. Individuals were fairly accurate in predicting how they would feel while engaged in work activities. Worth noting is that some scholars suggest that the discrepancies found in most relevant research largely reflect methodological artifacts, not substantive biases/errors. Indeed, when people are asked how they will feel about a specific event and then report in reference to that specific event (versus when later asked to report how they feel in general, without reference to that event), accuracy is much higher – as was the case here.4
Second, both studies showed that errors of prediction were about equally as likely to reflect “feeling better” than expected as to reflect “feeling worse” than expected. That is, there was not a systematic tendency to forecast work as being more aversive or more enjoyable than it later turned out to be. There were errors in both directions, but they were about equal in frequency and magnitude.
Finally, with respect to performance, the two studies revealed that feeling “better” than predicted (higher scores on the positively valenced, and lower scores on the negatively valenced, emotions – relative to predicted ones) were associated with better self-rated performance.
We have presented this work at a conference and it is now under review at a journal. In the coming months, we are extending this research into specific job contexts, including police work. Please feel free to contact me with any thoughts.
*This research was supported by the U.S. Army Research Institute Grant #: VV911NF-16-1-0513. Any opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARI or the government.
- Kaplan, S., Bradley, J.C., Luchman, J.N., & Haynes, D. (2009). On the role of positive
and negative affectivity in job performance: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 162-176.
- DeWall, C. N., Baumeister, R. F., Chester, D. S., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). How often does
currently felt emotion predict social behavior and judgment? A meta-analytic test of two theories. Emotion Review, 8, 136-143.
- Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.
- Levine, L. J., Lench, H. C., Kaplan, R. L., & Safer, M. A. (2012). Accuracy and artifact:
Reexamining the intensity bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 584-605.