Episodic Foresight

Episodic Foresight. Psychology Fanatic article header image.

We plan. We project ourselves into the future, imagine different behaviors, and ponder possible outcomes. In psychology, we refer to this as episodic foresight. Others have referred to this capacity as mental time travel, episodic future thinking, episodic prospection, and future-oriented thinking. We think about the future in a variety of ways. We dream, we hope, and we imagine possibilities. Episodic foresight refers to the specific capacity to imagine future episodes, interchange possible behaviors, and evaluate outcomes based on our interaction with surrounding events.

Just because we have the capacity to exercise episodic foresight, does not infer we all perform equally effectively in our mental time travelling. Children as young as 2 and 3 exhibit raw skills of imagining futures. By the age of 5, their skills are more refined, and they can organize complex behaviors around imagined future scenarios. For example, earlier this week, my three year old grandson told his mother with a wry grin, “I’m going to Papa’s and I’m going to get muddy.”

Key Definition:

Episodic foresight is the human ability to project oneself into future situations and mentally simulate actions and outcomes. Episodic foresight is a key skill that assists in making effective plans to obtain goals or avoid pain.


At the very basic level, we have instincts. Beneath consciousness, biological faculties push survival behaviors. Over thousands of years these faculties evolve to match environmental changes. We would survive as a species with instincts without foresight. However, human adaptation would screech to a crawl. Robert Axelrod wrote, “without foresight, the evolutionary process can take a very long time. Fortunately, humans do have foresight and use it to speed up what would otherwise be a blind process of evolution” (2009, Kindle location 2,458).

Michael S. Gazzaniga, the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains “instinct is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance.… [Instincts] are the functional correlatives of structure” (2018, p. 232).

Steven Pinker, a Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology at MIT, explains that “the mind is a system with many parts, then an innate desire is just one component among others” (2003, Kindle location 3,697). Both Pinker and Gazzaniga, make a distinction between instincts and foresight, with foresight emerging from different faculties of the mind. Foresight combines many different process.

Higher Level Functioning

Emotion (feeling affects) play a key role in motivating behaviors. Antonio Damasio, the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, wrote that emotion “enabled organisms to respond effectively but not creatively to a number of circumstances conducive or threatening to life—’good for life’ or ‘bad for life’ circumstances, ‘good for life’ or ‘bad for life’ outcomes.” Damasio continues, “eventually, in a fruitful combination with past memories, imagination, and reasoning, feelings led to the emergence of foresight and the possibility of creating novel, non-stereotypical responses” (2003, Kindle location 1,187).

In Richard Brodie’s book, Viruses of the Mind, he proposes to levels of existing. The first level of existence is the possession of innate genetic programming. We need to do nothing to benefit from level one existence. Level two existence, he suggests, includes a new skill set that we develop after birth. He lists these as skills such as “foresight, self-discipline, and integrity” (2009). At length, the skills associated with higher level processing, or Brodie’s level 2 existence, are necessary to organize life in the complex world we live in.

These processes of the mind are not something we learn from a book but are part of normal human development, acquired in stages, beginning when we are infants. By accomplishing certain tasks, and exposure to a variety of stimuluses, we may enhance or diminish the development of these complex cognitive processes.

Brain Processes Underlying Episodic Foresight

Pinker explains that episodic foresight is a function of combinatorial systems. He wrote that they “are information-processing systems that accept input and commandeer other parts of the brain and body” (2003). The process of episodic foresight requires drawing information from memory and combining and recombining our understanding of behavior, consequences, and outside influences to form a novel constellation of possibility.

Thomas Suddendorf wrote that the process of episodic foresight draws upon complex cognitive processes such as “working memory, recursive embedding, theory of mind, spatial reasoning, metarepresentation, executive functions, and language” (2017). However, with the complexity of numerous working parts also comes multiple points subject to failure of weakness. Breakdowns in episodic foresight lead to a variety of life problems. As Brodie puts it, people that fail to reach level to functioning “tend to live chaotic lives, unable to hold a job or keep a relationship going” (2009).

Several studies highlight life problems and diseases associated with diminished episodic foresight. Patients with schizophrenia have disrupted ability to apply foresight in a constructive way (Henry, et al., 2016). In another study, researchers found that “chronic opioid users exhibited reduced capacity for episodic forethought relative to controls” (Mercuri, et al., 2016).

Pleasure and Pain

Episodic foresight works together with a more basic principle of behavior. The hedonic principle (pleasure principle) drives people to chase pleasure and avoid pain. Foresight allows us to chase future pleasure and avoid future pain. We may endure momentary discomforts, delaying gratification, for greater rewards in the future.

Alfred Adler suggested that feelings of inferiority “stimulated humanity’s foresight and the ability to avoid danger…” (1986, p. 954). Markus and Nurius’s possible self is a function of episodic foresight. Suddendorf wrote, “we can set out to shape our future selves because we can think ahead and consider our future beings as continuous with our current selves” (2017).

Regulatory Focus Theory

In Psychology, the regulatory focus theory suggests that we have individual sensitivities based on our genetic makeup and life experiences. These sensitivities lead some to be more prevention focused (avoiding danger) and others to be more promotion focused (seeking opportunity). Despite having tendencies, we all utilize foresight for both prevention and promotion, albeit, we have different priorities.

Episodic Foresight’s Problems

Episodic foresight is not a magic ball. Our calculations of the future are only as accurate as the information we apply, and limited to elements we can reasonably guess. As Daniel Kahneman, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, puts it, “actions that seemed prudent in foresight can look irresponsibly negligent in hindsight” (2011, Kindle location, 3,425).

Basically, our foresight is littered with problems. We mispredict emotions, we dodge prudent facts, and only calculate simple contributing elements, missing the complex world of the unknown. While foresight is far superior to no foresight it is far from perfect and prone to errors, leading to depressing disappointments. We may infect helpful foresight with grandiose expectations. Instead of the beneficial motivation of realistic outcome expectations, we are left with a pile of unrealizable dreams.

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”

~Michel de Montaigne

Another side affect of episodic foresight is anxiety. When a significant portion of our wakeful moments is spent mulling through possible future disasters, we arouse unnecessary worry. The slightest thought can send us headlong into an emotional black hole. Consequently, many worries over the future have a magnetic effect, pulling us into the exact situation that we are worried about. We are so focused on the problem, we run right into it.

A Few Final Words

We need episodic foresight. Basically, foresight both blesses and curses our lives. If our life is chaotic, without direction, we should seek help in developing this valuable skill. However, if our life is full of anxiety, we may need to soften the impact of prevention focused foresight with practices in mindfulness and a trip to the family doctor.

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Adler, Alfred (1927/2010). Understanding Human Nature. Martino Fine Books; Translation edition.

Axelrod, Robert (1984/2009). The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition. ‎Basic Books.

Brodie, Richard (2009). Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Hay House Inc.

Damasio, Antonio (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harvest; First Edition.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2018). The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Henry, J., Addis, D., Suddendorf, T., & Rendell, P. (2016). Episodic foresight and schizophrenia. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(2), 107-122.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969.

Mercuri, K., Terrett, G., Bailey, P., Henry, J., Curran, H., & Rendell, P. (2016). Deconstructing the nature of episodic foresight deficits associated with chronic opiate use. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(4), 401-413.

Pinker, Steven (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.

Suddendorf, T. (2017). The Emergence of Episodic Foresight and Its Consequences. Child Development Perspectives, 11(3), 191-195.

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