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Projection bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their future attributes (e.g., tastes and beliefs) will resemble their current ones. Essentially, this bias leads people to engage in flawed self-forecasting, by projecting their current attributes onto their future selves, and thus underestimating how much their attributes will likely change over time.
Projection bias can strongly influence people’s thoughts, statements, and actions in various domains, so it’s important to understand it.
An example of the projection bias is that a person who is grocery shopping while hungry will likely buy more food than they really need, because they assume that they will keep being as hungry in the future, even after they’ve eaten.
Some entities may also take advantage of people’s projection bias intentionally, as in the case of companies that do so to influence people’s shopping patterns.
Example: Companies may encourage overconsumption by encouraging people to purchase large quantities of a certain product in advance (like the food at an all-you-can-eat buffet) before those people realize that they don’t need so much of the product or don’t value the product as much as they initially thought.
The projection bias means that even though people generally understand the direction in which their attributes will change over time, they systematically underestimate the magnitude of this change, so their prediction lies between their current attributes and their actual future attributes.
This happens because people give too much weight to the anchor of their current attributes, and fail to properly take into account factors that could cause their attributes to change, such as maturation, social influence, change in circumstances, adaptation to changes, and general mood fluctuations.
Factors that change people’s attributes over time can be categorized based on whether they are:
These factors can also be categorized based on whether they are short-term or long-term, based on the period of time over which they influence a person.
For example, social influence from a salesperson is likely to be short-term, whereas social influence from a parent is likely to be long-term.
People often fail to learn from past mispredictions of their future attributions, and therefore continue to repeatedly display the same type of projection bias over time. This can happen due to various reasons, such as:
The projection bias is attributed to a 2003 paper titled “Projection bias in predicting future utility”, by researchers George Loewenstein, Ted O’Donoghue, and Matthew Rabin (published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 118, Issue 4, pages 1209–1248).
The associated study was also published as a working paper in 2000, and mentioned in other publications around that time period. Furthermore, evidence of this phenomenon has also been presented in other papers published around that time and earlier.
Projection Bias is sometimes used to refer to people's tendency to project their beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviours unto others, and to consequently overestimate the degree to which these things are shared with others, a phenomenon that’s sometimes referred to as social projection or the false-consensus effect.
The type of projection bias that is outlined in this article can be considered a specific case of this, where people project current attributes onto their future selves.
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