British Journal of Developmental Psychology

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‘Things aren't so bad!’: Preschoolers overpredict the emotional intensity of negative outcomes

Adults often overpredict the emotional intensity of future events, but little is known about whether this ‘intensity bias’ is present in early childhood. We asked 48 3‐ to 5‐year‐olds to (1) predict and (2) report their emotions concerning two desirable (receiving four stickers, scoring up to two points in a ball toss) and two undesirable (receiving one sticker, scoring no points) outcomes. Children showed the intensity bias by overpredicting how negatively they would feel if they received one sticker, but not for scoring no points. We discuss how task factors (e.g., personal volition) and cognitive mechanisms (e.g., immune neglect) may influence children's tendency to show the intensity bias.

What is already known on this subject?

  • Adults tend to overpredict the intensity of their emotional reactions to future events.
  • Whether similar ‘affective forecasting’ errors characterize preschoolers' predictions is not known.

What does this study add?

  • We created two forecasting tasks (‘sticker’ and ‘ball’) with both desirable and undesirable outcomes.
  • We obtained evidence for a ‘negativity’ but not a ‘positivity’ bias in children's predictions.
  • On the sticker task, children overpredicted how badly they would feel after receiving one, versus, four stickers.

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