The Worst Is Yet to Come

Bad experiences seem worse when you think you will experience them again

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) New research shows that bad things can seem worse if people know that they will experience them again. Conversely, people remember bad experiences as being less unpleasant or painful if they believe it will not happen to them again.

In a series of studies, researchers Jeff Galak, Ph.D., of Carnegie Mellon University, and Tom Meyvis, Ph.D., of New York University, subjected individuals to negative, annoying noise and boring computer tasks. The researchers also asked women about menstrual pain.

Galak and Meyvis found that the participants remembered these negative experiences as being substantially more negative if the participants believed the negative experiences would happen again.

The researchers conducted various studies to address different negative experiences. In one laboratory study the participants were subjected to five seconds of vacuum cleaner noise. Compared with those who were told the noise was over, the participants who were told they would have to listen to the vacuum cleaner again said that it was considerably more irritating.

In another study, participants had to move circles on a computer screen from left to right 50 times. As with the vacuum noise, people who were told they would have to complete the task again said that it was much more irritating, boring, and annoying.

In a study of 180 women, Galak and Meyvis found further evidence of the power of expectation. When asked to rate the pain of their periods, women who were within three days of their period (either before or after) said they their last period was substantially more painful than those who were in the middle of their menstrual cycle.

On the other hand, when people were asked to recall fun activities, such as playing video games, they said such activities were equally fun, regardless of whether they would play again or not.

The authors assert that emotions negatively influence memory's assessment of bad experiences while positively influencing memory's assessment of good experiences. According to Galak and Meyvis, the influence that expectation has on one's memory suggests that preparing for the worst may actually help individuals to lessen their discomfort if a negative experience should occur. Furthermore, preparing for the worst may lead to a pleasant surprise when something bad does not happen.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 15, 2011
Last Updated:
February 16, 2011