Belief in a Favorable Future May Undermine that Future

People who are more likely to believe that others’ views will change to match their own over time are less likely to engage in actions to facilitate that change

Shannon Peters
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A new article, published in Psychological Science, explores how people’s belief that others’ views will change to match their own in the future impacts current behavior. The authors report on six studies they conducted examining this phenomenon, called a ‘Belief in a Favorable Future.’ Results of the studies suggest that people are highly likely to assume others’ views will become more similar to their own in the future and that this reduces people’s likelihood of engaging in change efforts in the present. The authors, led by Todd Rogers, behavioral scientist and associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, write:

“One implication of BFF [Belief in a Favorable Future] is that, in addition to believing progress will occur between the present and the future, people may believe that the progress that has been achieved up until today will endure into the future… This ‘end of history’ belief may reduce people’s vigilance to prevent backsliding and decline.”

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The researchers define a ‘Belief in a Favorable Future’ as “a belief that future others’ preferences and beliefs will change to align with their own.” Examples of this includes government officials delaying addressing an important issue because they believe more politicians will share similar views and offer more support in the future, or staying with an organization one disagrees with because one assumes the organizational values will change over time. Research shows that people tend to be worse at forecasting the future than they believe they are, and also tend to be more optimistic about their future (this remains true for individuals experiencing depression).

People tend to assume their own views are objective and rational, and therefore people who disagree with them are irrational, misinformed, or biased. This is known as naïve realism. The result is that people assume that as others have opportunities to be exposed to the ‘truth’ they will come around to the ‘right’ perspective. The authors also discuss a related phenomenon, the false consensus effect, where individuals tend to overestimate how much their views are shared by others.

The authors report on six studies they conducted to examine Belief in a Favorable Future in a variety of contexts, and the impact this belief has on current behavior. The first five studies were conducted as online surveys. The sixth study involved sending out emails to request political donations.

Study 1: In the first study, the researchers explored whether the phenomenon of Belief in a Favorable Future occurs across scientific beliefs and political, entertainment, and product preferences. The researchers asked participants questions about their preferences (e.g., “should legal abortions be easier or harder for a woman to have?” “Do you prefer Coca-Cola or Pepsi?”) and their belief about others’ preferences in the future (e.g. “In 20 years, will more Americans prefer for legal abortions to be easier or harder?”). Results show evidence of a Belief in a Favorable Future across all preference contexts as people tend to envision a future that is more aligned with their own views.

Study 2: In a second study, the researchers examined whether a Belief in a Favorable Future was a larger effect than the false consensus effect, and different than general optimism. Participants were asked about their opinion of Donald Trump, beliefs about current popular opinion of Trump, and beliefs about how popular opinion on Trump will change in the future. The results provide evidence for both the false consensus effect and Belief in a Favorable Future. However, Belief in a Favorable Future is a significantly larger effect (i.e., people who support Trump estimate a larger percentage of the population will support Trump in the future than they estimate support him currently).

The researchers also added a monetary incentive and told participants they would receive money in the future based on how accurately they predicted Trump’s future support. Half of the participants were told they would receive more money if Trump supporters increase, and the other half were told they would receive more money if his supporters decrease. Results show that participants demonstrated optimism by being more likely to predict Trump’s support in the direction that would make them the most money. However, the effect was significantly stronger if the direction that made them more money was also the direction in line with their beliefs (e.g., they would make more money if Trump supporters decrease and they are a Trump detractor). These results suggest that Belief in a Favorable Future is distinct from general optimism.

Study 3: The authors also investigated the strength of a Belief in a Favorable Future across collectivist (China and Japan) and individualist (The Netherlands and UK) cultures. Participants were asked about their political views (left, right, or middle) and their predictions about the future political views of their country. Results show evidence of a Belief in a Favorable Future across cultures, and that the effect is much stronger in collectivist cultures. This finding is consistent with research showing people in collectivist cultures tend to value fitting in more. The authors also note, “this pattern further distinguishes BFF [Belief in a Favorable Future] from a more general optimism, which tends to be more pronounced in individualist countries than in collectivist countries.”

Study 4: The researchers also conducted a study testing whether believing one’s views are objective facts increases a Belief in a Favorable Future. Participants were asked questions about preferring Apple or Android phones. Results demonstrate that when individuals view their opinions as objective facts, versus subjective beliefs, they show greater amounts of Belief in a Favorable Future.

Study 5: In another study, the authors investigated whether a Belief in a Favorable Future translated into favorable beliefs about future policy change. Participants answered questions about two policies generally believed to be heavily influenced by public opinion (legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage) and two policies believed to be less responsive to public opinion (NSA monitoring American citizens and military spending). As with other studies, participants demonstrated a Belief in a Favorable Future, as they believed future public opinion would come to match their own beliefs. However, they were significantly more likely to anticipate policy changes that are favorable to their views for topics they perceive are more susceptible to public opinion (marijuana and same-sex marriage).

Study 6: In the final study, the researchers explored how a Belief in a Favorable Future affects people’s current engagement in social change efforts. An email was sent out to Florida residents requesting a donation to support a political candidate. Half of the participants received an email suggesting their preferred candidate was slightly leading in the polls and the other half received an email that their candidate was trailing. Results show that individuals who believed their candidate was losing were more likely to open the email, click on the donation link, and donate money. In addition, of the people who donated, those who believed their candidate was losing donated more money on average.  The authors summarize that a Belief in a Favorable Future “can discourage people from taking action that could increase the chance that the favorable future actually will arise.”

The researchers demonstrate that people are highly likely to assume others will come around to their views in the future. But since this phenomenon holds true across opposing opinions, not everyone can be right about this prediction, and assuming people will change their views to match your own may make you less likely to take steps to create the future you envision. The authors write, “Ironically, BFF [Belief in a Favorable Future] can undermine the likelihood that people will actually make their more favorable futures come to fruition.” This research is a reminder that, regardless of your beliefs about the future, taking action to create the future you hope for will be much more effective than just hoping for it.

 

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Rogers, T., Moore, D. A., & Norton, M. I. (2017). The belief in a favorable future. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0956797617706706 (Link)

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Shannon Peters
MIA-UMB News Team: Shannon Peters is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston and has a master’s degree in mental health counseling. She is particularly interested in exploring the impacts of medicalization and pathologizing the experiences of individuals who have been affected by trauma. She is engaged in research on the effects of institutional corruption and financial conflicts of interest on research and practice.

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