The projection bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their future attributes (e.g., tastes and beliefs) will resemble their current ones. Essentially, this bias leads people to engage in flawed self-forecasting, by projecting their current attributes onto their future self, and thus underestimating how much their attributes will likely change over time.
The projection bias can strongly influence people’s thoughts, statements, and actions in various domains, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the projection bias, and see how you can deal with it in practice.
Examples of the projection bias
An example of the projection bias is that a person who is grocery shopping while hungry will likely buy more food than they really need, because they assume that they will keep being as hungry in the future, even after they’ve eaten.
Another example of the projection bias, this time in the context of time management, is that when people are tired and working feels hard, they can become unnecessarily pessimistic about their future ability to get work done. Alternatively, when people are well-rested and working feels easy, they can become unrealistically optimistic about their future ability to get work done.
In addition, the following are other examples of ways in which the projection bias can influence people:
- It can cause people who are making summer vacation plans during the winter to pick overly warm destinations, because they overestimate how much they will want to be somewhere warm during the summer, due to the current winter conditions.
- It can cause diners to order too much food at the beginning of their meal, because they overestimate how hungry they will be as the meal progresses, due to their current hunger.
- It can cause people to start engaging in an addictive habit, such as smoking cigarettes, because they underestimate how addictive it will be, due to their current lack of addiction.
- It can influence people’s decision regarding whether to try to quit an addictive behavior, by either discouraging them from trying to quit at moments when their cravings are strong (so they overestimate their future cravings), or by encouraging them to try to quit at moments when their cravings are weak (so they underestimate their future cravings).
Furthermore, the projection bias can influence people in various other ways, such as by causing them to mispredict their future gym attendance, or by causing the current weather to influence their decision of which clothes, car, or house to buy. It can also influence their decision-making in various other important domains, such as when it comes to medical choices (e.g., what treatment to get) and financial choices (e.g., which investments to pick).
Finally, some entities may also take advantage of people’s projection bias intentionally, as in the case of companies that do so to influence people’s shopping patterns. For example:
- The projection bias can cause people to assume that they will keep experiencing the same level of satisfaction from consuming something or engaging in a certain activity, even if their satisfaction will actually decrease over time. Accordingly, companies may encourage overconsumption by encouraging people to purchase large quantities of a certain product in advance (e.g., food at an all-you-can-eat buffet), before those people realize that they don’t need so much of the product or don’t value the product as much as they initially thought.
- The projection bias can cause people to underestimate how attached they will grow to an object after they purchase it (an attachment that can occur due to the endowment effect, which causes people to value things more if they possess them). Accordingly, companies may offer generous return policies and money-back guarantees, when they know that people will have a false sense of how reversible those purchases will feel to them after they make the purchase.
The psychology and causes of the projection bias
The projection bias means that even though people generally understand the (qualitative) direction in which their attributes (e.g., tastes and beliefs) will change over time, they systematically underestimate the (quantitative) magnitude of this change, so their prediction lies between their current attributes and their actual future attributes. This happens because people give too much weight to the anchor of their current attributes, and fail to properly take into account factors that could cause their attributes to change, such as maturation, social influence, change in circumstances, adaptation to changes, and general mood fluctuations.
Factors that influence attributes
Factors that change people’s attributes over time can be categorized based on whether they are:
- Personal (or dispositional), as in the case of maturation or general mood fluctuation.
- Environmental (or situational), as in the case of influence from peers or influence from a certain physical location.
These factors can also be categorized based on whether they are short-term or long-term, based on the period of time over which they influence a person. For example, social influence from a salesperson is likely to be short-term, whereas social influence from a parent is likely to be long-term.
A notable type of factor that often strongly influences people’s attributes are visceral factors, such as hunger, desire, and anger, which cause people to enter what is known as a hot (emotional) state.
Failure to learn from mispredictions
People often fail to learn from past mispredictions of their future attributions, and therefore continue to repeatedly display the same type of projection bias over time. This can happen due to various reasons, such as:
- A person’s desire to feel that they understand themself well, which can lead them to engage in self-enhancement, by forgetting or misremembering their past mispredictions.
- A person’s focus on confirming their current predictions, rather than on assessing them properly, which can lead them to ignore evidence that contradicts those predictions (e.g., past mispredictions).
- The prediction errors that a person makes can be different from each other, for example because they occur in different domains (e.g., when it comes to buying clothes and when it comes to eating), which can make it difficult to identify the connections between these errors, and consequently to notice, understand, and correct the issue with one’s predictions.
How to deal with the projection bias
There are several things that you can do to reduce the projection bias:
- Understand what this bias is and what causes it.
- Understand when and how this bias can affect people in general.
- Be aware of common projection traps, such as underestimating the influence of visceral factors, overestimating the likelihood of following up on future plans, and oversensitivity to your current state when making long-term decisions.
- Identify specific situations where this bias can play a key role, and plan how you will deal with it. For example, if you know that the projection bias will cause you to buy too much food if you shop while hungry, then you can eat before going grocery shopping.
- Identify past situations where the projection bias influenced your thinking, and use that to inform your planning. For example, if you’re thinking about buying a product, you can ask yourself how you felt about a similar product that you purchased in the past.
- Ask guiding questions, such as “how likely is it that I’ll feel the same way about this in a month?”, or “am I sure that I’ll feel the same way once I’ve had a chance to cool off?”.
- Get feedback from someone you trust. For example, you can ask someone who knows you whether they think that the purchase you’re planning to make is something that you’ll end up regretting.
- Use self-distancing techniques, such as considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation.
- Take enough time to think things over, and especially to cool off before making important decisions. For example, if you’re currently experiencing strong emotions, for example because you just received a high-pressure sales pitch, you can choose to postpone making a decision until you’re away from the salesperson and had a chance to sleep.
- Set up decision-making rules in advance, such as counting to 10 or getting some sleep before making major decisions, or not making any major purchases on your first visit to a store.
- Use general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process and making it explicit.
With some modifications, you can also use these techniques to reduce the projection bias in others. For example, if you want to reduce the projection bias in someone, you can explain to them what this bias is, ask them guiding questions that prompt them to realize that their tastes will likely change over time, and encourage them to take some time to cool off before making a decision.
In addition, note that even if you don’t intend or aren’t able to reduce the projection bias, it can be useful to account for it when it comes to understanding and predicting people’s behavior, including your own. For example, accounting for the projection bias can help you understand why someone chose to make a certain bad purchase, or it can help you predict that they will do so in the future.
Other types of projection biases
The term “projection bias” is primarily used to describe people’s tendency to overestimate the degree to which their future attributes will resemble their current ones. However, this term can also be used to describe other biases that involve similar forms of projection. Most notably:
- It’s sometimes used to refer to people’s tendency to project their beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviors unto others, and to consequently overestimate the degree to which these things are shared with others, a phenomenon that’s sometimes referred to as social projection or the false-consensus effect. The type of projection bias that is outlined in this article can be considered a specific case of this, where people project current attributes onto their future self.
- It’s sometimes used to refer to people’s current state influencing their judgment and memory of past experiences.
- It’s sometimes used to refer to people’s tendency to project current events into the future, for example by extrapolating recent trends in the stock market to the future.
Origin and history of the projection bias
The projection bias is attributed to a 2003 paper titled “Projection bias in predicting future utility”, by researchers George Loewenstein, Ted O’Donoghue, and Matthew Rabin (published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 118, Issue 4, pages 1209–1248). The associated study was also published as a working paper in 2000, and mentioned in other publications around that time period. Furthermore, as the authors of this paper note, evidence of this phenomenon has also been presented in other papers published around that time and earlier.
The type of perspective anchoring that’s associated with the projection bias is also associated with a number of other biases. These include, most notably:
- The egocentric bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they examine events in their life or when they try to see things from other people’s perspective.
- The empathy gap, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to struggle to understand mental states that are different from their present state, or to struggle to consider how such states affect people’s judgment and decision-making.
In addition, the prediction bias is closely associated with the concept of affective forecasting, which represents people’s predictions about their emotional reactions to future events, and with hedonic forecasting (or hedonic prediction), which represents people’s predictions about the utility that they will derive from certain outcomes (e.g. how happy a certain decision or product will make them). These phenomena, in turn, are also associated with various other prediction biases.
Summary and conclusions
- The projection bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their future attributes (e.g., tastes and beliefs) will resemble their current ones.
- For example, the projection bias can cause people to be unnecessarily pessimistic about their future ability to get work done if they’re tired now so working feels hard, or it can cause people to be unrealistically optimistic if they’re currently well-rested and working feels easy.
- This bias means that although people generally understand the (qualitative) direction in which their attributes will change, they systematically underestimate the (quantitative) magnitude of this change, because they give too much weight to the anchor of their current attributes, and fail to properly account for factors that could change them, such as maturation, social influence, and mood fluctuations.
- To reduce the projection bias, you can use various debiasing techniques, such as understanding this bias and its consequences, being aware of common projection traps (e.g., underestimating the influence of visceral factors), planning for specific situations where this bias is likely to occur, and taking time to cool off before major decisions.
- It can be useful to account for this bias when it comes to understanding and predicting people’s behavior, including your own.