New ventures often begin with great expectations about their likely success, whether it’s the beginning of a new business or even a relationship. So why are we so often disappointed with the results when things don’t develop as we thought they would? Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business’s assistant professor Daniel Feiler and his co-author Jordan Tong, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin’s along with doctoral student Anastasia Ivantsova’s new research sheds light on this disconnect in a forthcoming study to be published in Psychological Science.
Feiler talks with me about our natural tendency toward overestimating success, how curbing our enthusiasm might help us with decision-making and how we might find more happiness when others choose for us. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Elizabeth Harris: Your new paper begins with some great opening questions that we all can recognize: Why do new projects we choose to pursue rarely live up to our expectations? And why are we more often pleasantly surprised when someone else chooses for us than when we choose for ourselves? It seems like this topic is relevant to almost anyone.
Dan Feiler: To me inherent in choosing a new project is that we don’t know what that’s going to end up being. To the extent that it’s a nontrivial decision, the reason we’re actually trying and making decisions is because it matters. And that happens when we’re really not sure how good different options are going to be.
Really at the heart of this, is this observation pointing out that when you’re choosing under uncertainty, literally just the problem that overestimating things makes you more likely to choose them and underestimating them makes you less likely to choose them. That said differently means that the ones that you’ve picked on average, you’ve overestimated.
Harris: So just by choosing them it’s a tell — and yet if you’re not aware of that then you just pick them and maybe have regrets later?
Feiler: That’s right. In the paper, what we ended up leaning towards, as a straw man, is the research on motivated reasoning. What that perspective would say is once you’ve picked something, now you’re going to start thinking about it in a way that makes it seem more favorable. You’re attached to it.