Imagine for a moment that you won the lottery – mazal tov! As you envision that hopeful, future self, presumably you are predicting that you will be filled with overwhelming, positive emotions. While there will be excitement and happiness involved in winning, research shows that over time, lottery winners are not significantly happier than non-winners. As you imagine that scenario, what you aren’t considering are the hassles and challenges that accompany winning the lottery that will contribute a host of negative emotions. Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert identify this recurring mistake as affective forecasting. We tend to mis-predict how we will feel in future situations, predicting that certain outcomes will engender more positive emotions than they actually do when they happen, and assuming that bad situations will feel worse than they actually do in reality.
Parshat Matot begins with a discussion of the concept of vows and oaths – “If a man makes a vow to the Lord… he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Bemidbar 30:3). While he may not break his own word after taking a vow, the Talmud (Chagigah 10a) interprets the verse as teaching that others can break his vow. This is the process known as hatarat nedarim – annulment of vows – a version of which we practice before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Based on early Talmudic commentators, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that there are two ways to annul a vow. The first is through a mechanism called a petach – an opening – in which the person is released from his vow because the vow was made in error. If the sage is able to ascertain that there were circumstances that the person who took the vow was not aware of or was not paying attention to when he made the vow, but had he been aware of them he would not have made the vow, the vow can be annulled. For example, if a person vowed to fast for a certain amount of time and didn’t realize that there was a holiday during that time frame, the sage asks him if he would have made the vow had he been cognizant of the intervening holiday. If the answer is no, then the sage has found an opening, and the vow is annulled.
The second way to annul a vow is through charatah – remorse. In this case there is no mistake in the facts of the case. Rather, his vow can be released, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains “on the grounds that his tastes have changed, his feelings, his outlook and criteria are different now from what they were at the time he made his vow. Those things which originally seemed to him to be of ultimate importance now appear to be trivial and foolish.” As an example, consider a person who, after being insulted, takes a vow to avenge the slight. Over time, his anger subsides, and he no longer feels the same intense negativity towards the perpetrator. In contrast to finding an opening to annul the vow, here, there is no mistake in external considerations of the case. Rather, “[w]hat happened is that a radical change occurred in the conscience and will of the person who made the vow.”
Even if we aren’t accustomed to making vows, we are prone to mistakes in decision making based on both of these concepts. First, we make mistakes in logic and judgment. We don’t factor in or pay attention to all the factors of the external reality when deciding what to do. We jump to act before thinking through the details. Second, we are poor affective forecasters. We make decisions in the present thinking that we know what we will feel in the future. But we are usually wrong. We think we will always feel this anger, so we do something that we will regret in the long-term, once the anger subsides.
While sometimes we are blessed with the opportunity of repentance or annulment of vows, perhaps we can try to avoid making poor judgements in the first place by being more mindful and becoming better aware of our emotional states.