My future is brighter than yours: the positivity bias in episodic future thinking and future self-images

Psychol Res. 2020 Oct;84(7):1829-1845. doi: 10.1007/s00426-019-01189-z. Epub 2019 Apr 29.


Numerous studies on episodic future thinking have demonstrated that individuals perceive their future as more positive and idyllic than their past. It has been suggested that this positivity bias might serve a self-enhancement function. Yet, conflicting findings and lack of systematic studies on the generalizability of the phenomenon leave this interpretation uncertain. We provide the first systematic examination of the positivity bias across different domains and tasks of future thinking. First, we use the same tasks in two different domains of future thinking, representing an episodic (events) and a semantic dimension (self-images), respectively. Second, we use two different measures of positivity bias (i.e., frequency of positive versus negative instances and their distance from present). Third, we contrast each measure in each domain for events/self-images related to self versus an acquaintance. Experiments 1 and 2 showed a strong, general tendency for the generation of positive future events/self-images, but most pronounced for self, relative to an acquaintance. Experiments 3 and 4 demonstrated that positive future events/self-images were dated closer to present, whereas negative ones were pushed further into the future, but only for self and not for an acquaintance. Our results support the idea that the positivity bias in future thinking serves a self-enhancement function and that this bias likely represents a similar underlying motivational mechanism across different domains of future thinking, whether episodic or semantic. The findings add to our understanding of the motivational functions served by different forms of future thoughts in relation to the self.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Middle Aged
  • Optimism / psychology*
  • Self Concept*
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult