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  • Writer's pictureSeth Harrell

Affective Foresight

énouenent – the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, finally learning theanswers to how things turned out but being unable to tell your past self.


Would it surprise you to know that the word above is made up? It is not an officially recognized word by standard English dictionaries. In fact, few more than John Koenig had likely ever seen or heard of it until 2021 when it was published as part of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a collection of newly created words to better capture the nuance of emotional experiences. Why would someone write an entire book about made up words for emotions? Koenig explains, “…there’s a huge blind spot in the language of emotion, vast holes in the lexicon that we don’t even know we’re missing. We have…only a rudimentary vocabulary to capture the delectable subtleties of the human experience. Words will never do us justice, but we have to try anyway.”


This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

The word énouenent certainly seems real, but do we really need it? Surely there is another word that embodies this feeling, right? According to Koenig, there isn’t, which is precisely why he invented it along with hundreds of other words. I believe it is important to highlight the fact that although this word describes a familiar emotion common to the human experience, one that those who work the future should be able to refer to with ease, it had yet to be named. We need more words such as this to better emotionally engage our audiences with their futures. Try as we might to utilize reason and logic for our arguments, the human race is first and foremost an emotional species. On a base level, I might even say that the most important aspect of foresight is the ability to create emotional connections between people and their possible, probable, preferred, and preventable futures.


Emotion is the underlying motivator behind the actions we choose to take and because of this I believe there is a benefit to deepening our understanding of the relationship between human emotion and futures thinking. We need to not only account for recently identified obscure emotions such as énouenent but even the possible novel emotions of futures that have yet to be experienced or understood. Affective Foresight could help people experience futures through the emotional sense-making lens of those futures. We to need understand how our emotional states can nurture better foresight and how foresight can nurture better emotional states.


Future Emotions

Could there really be emotions that will exist in the future that do not exist today? I admit that it is certainly a strange concept to ponder. To illustrate, consider the recently recognized psychological condition of “eco-anxiety” defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Humans throughout history have experienced anxiety over weather disasters, but had anyone ever felt a specific emotion associated with the possible destruction of the Earth’s entire ecological system - while at the same time knowing that little was being done about it? I would say no, and the reporting of anxiety and depression specifically related to climate change is increasing.


Even though I’ve been trained in futures thinking, I was still unsure about the concept of “emotions of the future” until hearing the news story of a possible artificial intelligence breakthrough. Having previously researched affective computing/emotional A.I., I was excited when the news broke this past June of a conversation in which a highly advanced Google A.I. chatbot known as LaMDA convinced an engineer that it was sentient. Although being convinced of the contrary by an overwhelming majority of computer scientists who immediately spoke out to counter this claim, I wanted to read the transcript as soon as I could.


My reaction startled me. I was awestruck by the emotionally compelling nature of this technology and instantly realized its power to manipulate people at a large scale. I also had a sinking feeling due to being duped into an empathic response despite knowing that this technology was designed to play on my emotions. Not to mention the most disturbing aspect, that I had experienced this conversation second-hand. Upon further reflection, I wondered if this could be an entirely new emotion, yet to be named? Maybe even one specific to artificial intelligence or other powerful technological advances?


Emotional States and Future Thinking

Another aspect of Affective Foresight came to my attention while researching emotional states and future thinking. I came across a tool, designed by Robert Plutchik, for understanding emotional relationships (seen below). Although not a perfect model, this tool attempts to relate emotions with their opposites, similar to a color wheel, with intensity diminishing as the rings radiate outward.


Plutchik’s Wheel

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Upon my first examination of this wheel, I immediately noticed that the emotions of surprise and anticipation are positioned as polar opposites. While this relationship should be obvious, it did cause me to think differently about futures work. This insight became even more intriguing when I happened to watch a recent interview in which social psychologist and author Heidi Grant addressed why people react poorly in times when levels of uncertainty about the future are high. She explained, “…our brains are constantly in a state of threat. We struggle to problem-solve; we struggle to plan. We get overwhelmed by our emotions, we lose our ability to control our impulses. We actually struggle to learn new things and pull things from our memory when we need it.” Considering that the main objective of foresight is to decrease the element of future surprise by increasing anticipation, the use of foresight mitigates and therefore reduces the anxiety experienced caused by uncertainty. In other words, the use of foresight leads to better impulse control, learning, and decision making.


I now understand that the practice of foresight fundamentally has a direct and positive influence on human emotional states. Because of this, I believe that emotion should play an increasing role in futures work and deserves to be explored as its own domain of study. This Affective Foresight begins with the acknowledgement that futures thinking benefits the human emotional state, seeks to understand emotional nuance of the future, and promotes the benefits of foresight as a tool for improved mental health and decision making. To this end, I recommend that we work to engage experts on theories of human emotion to develop and incorporate new methods, tools, and frameworks of understanding the mutually beneficial relationship of emotions and the future.


(Originally posted on the Emerging Fellows blog of the Association of Professional Futurists)


References:

Koenig, John. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, 2021, Simon & Schuster, ISBN13: 9781501153648


Grant, Heidi. Our Brains Were Not Built for This Much Uncertainty, 2021, Harvard Business Publication Online. https://hbsp.harvard.edu/product/H06KPV-PDF-ENG


Millson, Alex. “Five Things Google’s AI Bot Wrote That Convinced Engineer It Was Sentient.” Bloomberg, June 13, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-13/five-things-google-s-ai-bot-wrote-that-convinced-engineer-it-was-sentient. Technology

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