How do we judge our lives?
We all want to live a good and happy life. But how is that measured? The way in which we form that judgment matters, and understanding our biases can give us a leg up and help to re-shape our judgment of our own lives more fairly.
It Can Change With the Shift of the Winds
Judgements of our own well-being are largely constructed on-the-spot from whatever information is currently on our mind and deemed relevant. What if we’re having a generally crappy day? In those moments, we’re going to pass a different view of our life in general.
This is called “state level variation” – the current feelings or satisfaction we have at any particular moment impact our broader judgment of ourselves. We tend to globalize the current emotions to the broader state. But we don’t have to do this. We can recognize it as what it is – a temporary condition. (Yap et. al.; Schimmack and Oishi, 2005)
The good news is that this kind of undue mood-driven influence is typically light. Life satisfaction is largely judged based on how you feel you’re doing in the important areas of life. These, too, can be unduly influenced. This time, it’s due to something called “trait measures.”
Trait measures are personality traits, cultural values, memory biases, and general beliefs about yourself which shape your judgment of your own life. (Robinson & Clore, 2002b)
The Peak-and-End Effect
For example, consider the peak-and-end effect bias. The peak-and-end effect states that people tend to judge retrospective well-being from the peak and the end of that experience. In other words, what was the emotional highlight or lowlight of an experience, and how did you feel when it ended? Those feelings far outweigh the rest, even over broader time ranges within one “episode” of your life.
This is merely one bias that impacts your impression of past experiences, but it’s a helpful example because retrospective judgements are an important factor when we consider our life satisfaction. We also use retrospective judgements in decision-making: Believe it or not, when you decide whether or not to repeat a vacation, you consider how you felt about it after the fact, not how you felt in the moment! (Wirtz, Kruger, Scollon & Diener, 2003)
Next time you judge yourself too harshly, consider: could this be because of some ill-gotten belief or bias I have? Through what lens have I shaped this judgment? Am I being fair to myself? Has society cast its values on me and coerced me into this judgment? Am I not being fair with the way I’ve remembered an experience due to the peak-and-end effect? Am I just in a bad mood from this awful day I’m having?
Any or all of these could be the perpetrator of imperfect judgment. Knowing about them is the first step to setting yourself free.
- Robinson, M. D., & Clore, G. L. (2002b). Episodic and semantic knowledge in emotional self-report: Evidence for two judgment processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 198–215.
- Wirtz, D., Kruger, J., Scollon, C. N., & Diener, E. (2003). What to do on spring break? The role of predicted, on-line, and remembered experience in future choice. Psychological Science, 14, 520–524.
- Yap, S. C. Y., Wortman, J., Anusic, I., Baker, S. G., Scherer, L. D., Donnellan, M. B., & Lucas, R. E. (in press). The effect of mood on judgments of subjective well-being: Nine tests of the judgment model. Journal of Social and Personality Psychology.