Pragmatic Prospection in Action

When people say they think about the future, far and away the most common category of thoughts is simply planning. Three of every four thoughts about the future in the thought-sampling study involved planning.

Planning is supremely pragmatic. It is a matter of charting a path from the present to the desired future. Planning assumes that there are multiple possible futures and that one can alter one's actions to bring about some of these and avoid others (e.g., there's no point in the audience trying to plan the rest of the movie). The essential purpose of the plan is to bring about one outcome rather than the others that could easily happen if one fails to make and follow the plan.

As with the past, some thoughts about the future also point toward involuntary ruminations on unpleasant matters. But these are relatively infrequent. People reported thinking about "what you hope will happen" twice as often as "what you fear will happen." And of course people do worry; in these data, 22% of thoughts about the future included worries. But that figure pales next to the 74% of thoughts that involved planning, as well as the high rates of thinking about "what you hope to do" (47%), "what you hope will happen" (45%), and even just wondering what will happen (33%).

The preponderance of pragmatic thoughts about the future is impressive. As already said, planning tops the list. There were several categories that split the vote, so to speak, about one's future actions, but together these were a substantial amount. That is, people thought a great deal about what they hoped to do (47%), what they will do (39%), intending to do something (29%), and what they are obliged to do (26%). Nontrivial minorities of thoughts were devoted even just to what one should say (or write) (17%) and to choosing or deciding among future options (25%). (People could choose more than one answer, so the categories are not mutually exclusive and therefore add to more than 100%.)

We said pragmatic thoughts about the past include figuring out what it meant, how to understand it, and what its implications for the future. Pragmatic thoughts for the future involve anticipating what will happen so that one can know how to react. Admittedly, these are not always clearly pragmatic, but most of them probably are. Thoughts about the future turn somewhat often to trying to predict what other people will do (26%). Anticipating others' actions is a key first step in thinking about how you could and should respond. Wondering what will happen (33%) reflects the uncertainty of the future and perhaps the recognition that if you can figure out what will happen, then you will know how best to act now and to respond later.

Almost one in five thoughts about the future (18%) involves possible or expected emotions. In Chapter 8, in which we discuss emotion, we say that anticipating how you will feel is an important guide for current action. People learn what actions will bring what emotions, because this helps them choose to act in ways that will bring positive emotions and avoid negative emotions. Knowing that some course of action is likely to make you feel guilty, for example, is often a compelling cue to avoid doing those things and, probably in general, a very helpful cue that will help people get through life better.

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