Ideal Affect: How What You Want to Feel Can Impact Your Choices

Think about how you feel right now. Nervous because of an upcoming deadline? Content because you spent the afternoon reading a satisfying book? Sad because you ran out of episodes of your favorite TV show? Whatever the answer may be, researchers who study emotion would call this your actual affect, or how you actually feel. Now think about how you want to feel. Do you wish you felt more happy? More excited? More relaxed? Your answer to this question would reflect your ideal affect, or how you typically want to feel.

It is likely that your answers to these two questions are different from each other. This would be in line with affect valuation theory, proposed by Stanford researcher Jeanne Tsai and her colleagues, which suggests that your ideal affect is distinct from your current affect.

For the most part, people want to feel good things, such as feeling excited, enthusiastic, calm, or relaxed. But according to affect valuation theory, the type of good feelings people strive for—or their ideal affect—impacts the kind of behavior they engage in.

Indeed, people or cultures who value positive states such as excitement tend to differ from those who value positive states such as calmness or contentedness. For example, those who value positive states like excitement are more likely to prefer more exciting consumer products, such as preferring exciting music, while those who value calmness are more likely to prefer soothing music.

These differences in ideal affect not only impact consumer choices but can also impact their healthcare decisions. Tsai and her collaborators have recently looked at how people’s ideal affect can predict what kind of doctors they prefer.

To test this, participants in this study were asked to hypothetically decide on a new primary care doctor after reading brief biographical descriptions of physicians. These physician descriptions were edited to emphasize that the doctor promoted positive states such as excitement (i.e., focusing on “patients’ overall vitality”) or calmness (i.e., focusing on “promoting a relaxed life-style”). The doctors were the same in all other aspects (e.g., education, competence).

As they expected, the researchers found that people’s ideal affect predicted choice of doctor. People who valued feeling excited were more likely to pick the doctor who emphasized vitality (i.e., more “excitement-focused”), and those who valued feeling calm picked the more relaxation-focused physician.

Interestingly, how much excitement or calmness people actually felt did not predict which doctor they chose. At least in this context, people’s ideal affect was a better predictor of their choices than their actual affect, suggesting that while we typically tend to focus on how we’re feeling right now, how we want to feel may be just as important in our lives.