If most people run a race, they cheer after they cross the finish line. It is a culturally acceptable psychological reward for all of the training and preparation and execution of the plan.

But what happens when that script isn't followed? If you learn of a victory too soon, is it cheapened? Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Nadav Klein, a doctoral student, find that the positive reaction one would have when succeeding is lessened if it doesn't follow the expected course.

When people learned that they would win a game, get a job offer or be accepted to college before their predetermined time, the experience was muted twice — when they learned early, and then when the goal was achieved.



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"We basically show that people want to feel good at the right time — that is, when a goal is achieved and not before then," Fishbach says.

The researchers conducted four studies, and found that people made script-consistent errors in recalling an attained goal, that people were happier when good news followed the predetermined script, that people value goals less if they learn early that they will be achieving them, and that people had a mellowed reaction to achieving the goal if they were certain beforehand that the goal would be achieved.

"When people learn that a goal will be achieved before it actually is, they often try to suppress the positive emotion in order to feel it at the 'right time,'" Fishbach says. "The result is that people don't feel as happy when they get the news — because it's not the right time — as well as when the goal is officially achieved — because by then it's no longer 'news.'"

Fishbach and Klein speculate that, among other possible reasons, this muting may occur because of the fragility of positive emotion, noting that it is much easier for a good mood to sour than it is to overcome a bad mood.

"Once positive emotion is 'tampered with,' it appears to be difficult to reignite," they write. "It appears that positive emotion can be dampened relatively easily, but reawakening it appears to be more difficult."


Citation: Nadav Klein, Ayelet Fishbach, 'Feeling good at the right time: Why people value predictability in goal attainment', Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 55, November 2014, Pages 21–30 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.05.011. Source: University of Chicago Booth School of Business