The Highs (and Lows) in Life Don’t Last as Long as You Think

Hey, Packers fans, have you started to come down from your cloud yet?  I was about as euphoric as anyone when the final seconds of the Super Bowl ticked down last night, but then my kids — up way past their bedtime (thank you for the late start time, NFL) — began to fall apart from fatigue and over-stimulation, and I was vividly reminded of some fascinating reading I’ve done in the past year on “affective forecasting.”

In essence, the lesson derived from many years of psychological research is this: people have a pronounced tendency to overestimate how long both happy and sad emotional states will last, even in response to major life events.  For instance, research shows that lottery winners come back to earth much more quickly than you would think, while accident victims who suffer permanently disabling injuries also tend to return to their prior emotional state after a readjustment period.  An excellent introduction to this research is Jeremy A. Blumenthal, Law and Emotions: The Problems of Affective Forecasting, 80 Ind. L.J. 155 (2005).

As Blumenthal observes, the research has some interesting implications for law.  Here are some thoughts, for instance, on implications for criminal punishment.

Judges are almost certainly as prone to affective forecasting error as anyone else, and it may sometimes infect their sentencing decisions.  This might happen in two ways.  First, judges may tend to overestimate the duration of emotional harm suffered by victims.  Witnessing intense victim distress on display at a sentencing hearing, a judge may not appreciate the power of the psychological coping mechanisms that tend to soften our emotional highs and lows over time.  (I do wonder, though, to what extent victims’ interactions with the criminal justice system, including the implicit or explicit encouragement of emotional displays in the courtroom, tend to diminish the speed or effectiveness with which those coping mechanisms operate.)

Second, judges may overestimate how emotionally difficult the prison experience will be for defendants.  The research indicates that, after an adjustment period of a few months, the emotional state of inmates tends to improve steadily over time and may come to approach pre-incarceration conditions.  An interesting discussion of this research and its implications is here: John Bronsteen et al.,Happiness and Punishment, 76 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1037 (2009).  A judge who hopes to impose a period of protracted misery on a defendant through a long prison term is apt to miss the mark.  On the other hand, for reasons discussed by Bronsteen et al., release into the community while bearing the stigma of a criminal conviction may actually be more productive of misery than a long prison sentence.

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rebecca Blemberg

    Thanks, Michael, for the interesting post! I will definitely read these articles. It seems a problem in the law generally that we can’t forecast how people will feel in the future, or how they will suffer harm in the present. It’s questionable whether we can even do this for ourselves since life is always subject to change. It’s interesting to reflect on how law tries to deal with (or ignore) this human phenomenon.

    I want to say, though, that through working with people who have survived violent crimes, especially sexual assault and domestic violence, that I’ve learned that many victims experience significant stress and trauma long after the incident or courtroom experience. Even someone who returns to a “prior emotional state” based on psychological evaluation likely has to exert extraordinary efforts to cope. It’s all so individual. Judges and lawyers should take note of the fact that we can’t truly walk in the shoes of the victim or the offender, and we should be cautious when we try to to so.

  2. David Papke

    I’m not sure release into the community while bearing the “stigma” of a criminal conviction is much of a penalty. The problem is that most people are released into communities in which large numbers of others also have criminal convictions on their records. Indeed, the “stigma” might even be a “credential” of sorts.

    The bigger issue might be release with a felony conviction into the society as a whole. Convicted felons lose many of their rights, including but not limited to the rights to vote, hold office, obtain a driver’s license, and live in public housing. Also, studies have shown that approximately 65% of private employers simply will not hire a convicted felon even if they have done their time.

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