Wednesday, May 5, 2010


In his talk “The Role of Experiences and Beliefs in Affective Forecasts,” Professor Nathan Novemsky argued for the importance of top-down processes in affective forecasts and memories. He provided extensive evidence for his belief that hedonic forecasts are heavily influenced by beliefs that may not correspond to past experiences. Novemsky contrasted this top-down theory with the bottom-up model, which suggests that past experiences are directly remembered and summarized in our beliefs. He explained a study involving fat-free cheese, in which he found that subjects who enjoyed cheese they believed to be fat-free—it was not actually fat-free—quickly forgot about this pleasant experience and returned to their generally undisturbed belief that fat-free cheese is not tasty, except for the subjects who were asked to rate the cheese during consumption. He also showed that hedonic ratings are particularly fragile and that beliefs drive hedonic forecasts more than experiences, unless individuals are forced by an external cue, such as a rating, to pay attention to an experience. In a related study involving movie scenes, Novemsky found that individuals remember the hedonic value better from a typical experience than from an atypical experience. Citing other studies, he showed that people may retain specific memories, such as the texture of allegedly fat-free cheese or the sweetness of chocolate, but that it can be difficult to “bootstrap” these memories to more general hedonic evaluations. Real-time evaluations, even when unreported, can greatly increase the influence of experiences on beliefs and forecasts. Novemsky has also found that people do not intuit the role of attention in their own experiences or the pervasiveness of lay beliefs in affective forecasts.

Novemsky’s research is highly relevant to real-life situations because it shows how we can make more accurate decisions. On the one hand, top-down decision-making has obvious adaptive value, especially when our limited experiences are not representative of a larger trend or tendency. On the other hand, Novemsky suggests that we do not pay enough attention to our experiences when making hedonic evaluations. In the case of fat-free cheese, for example, or for any other food product, it might make more sense to pay attention to our individual experiences. Paying attention to hedonic experiences, even when they diverge from our beliefs, could help us improve our thinking when deciding whether or not to purchase a certain item or make choices in other domains.

Novemsky’s line of research may have far-reaching implications not only for product evaluations but also for the legal system. According to Hastie and Pennington’s story model of juror decision-making, jurors select the verdict that best matches the stories they have developed. This theory has been corroborated by more recent studies that show higher recognition among mock jurors for statements in their accepted version of a verdict story versus the other verdict story. In addition, jurors have false recognition for inferred statements that are consistent with their verdict story but where never presented as evidence. Although jurors’ decision-making processes are not completely analogous to the hedonic evaluations studied by Novemsky, I believe there is significant overlap and room for further study. By improving our understanding of jurors’ attention and memory for certain kinds of evidence, we may be able to improve the deliberation process. For examples, perhaps judges could give specific instructions to help jurors be aware of and hopefully counterbalance these phenomena.