Thursday, June 29, 2006


The Reduced “Stumbling on Happiness” VI. Corrigibility (capability of being corrected, reformed, or improved.)

Chapter 10 Once Bitten

Why don’t we learn from our direct experience or that of others how better to predict the future? Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times. Memory stores an idiosyncratic synopsis of our experience, and emphasizes final scenes, or final items in a series of events. Experiments show that the way an experience ends is more important to us than the total amount of pleasure we receive – until we think about it. After an important event (such as the Gore/Bush election) we remember feeling as we had expected to feel (highly elated or crushed), not as we actually felt (slightly elated or crushed). Prospections and retrospections can be in perfect agreement despite the fact that neither accurately describes our actual experience.

Chapter 11 Reporting live from tomorrow

Like genes, some beliefs are transmitted more successfully than others. Inaccurate beliefs can prevail in the belief-transmission game if they somehow facilitate their own “means of transmission.” False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate....some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief.

Consider money. A bedrock of our economic behavior is the assumption that people are better off if they end up with more money rather than less. This is true for the amount of money needed to lift people out of poverty and into the middle class, but beyond that money does little to increase happiness. If food and money both stop pleasing us once we’ve had enough of them, why do we continue to stuff our pockets when we would not continue to stuff our faces? Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt... the fundamental needs of a vibrant economy and the fundamental needs of a happy individual are not necessarily the same... economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. ...the propagation of false beliefs does not require that anyone be “trying” to perpetrate a magnificent fraud on an innocent populace. There is no cabal at the top, no start chamber, no master manipulator whose clever program of indoctrination and propaganda has duped us all into believing that money can buy us love. Rather, this particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. ... we are nodes in a social network that arises and falls by a logic of its own, which is why we continue to toil, continue to mate, and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.

There IS a simple method by which anyone can make strikingly accurate predictions about how they will feel in the future. and large no one wants to use it. We can give up on remembering and imagining entirely and use other people as surrogates for our future selves. There is someone out there who is now experiencing the future event that we are merely thinking about, and for the most part they are more than willing to tell us about it.
But, you say, “I’m special, it won’t help me to know other people’s experiences as proxies for my own... I’m better off basing my predictions on my own imagination than on reports of people who are so different from me.”

Imagination (see above) has the shortcomings of filling in and leaving out without telling us (section on realism), of projecting the present onto the future (presentism), of failing to recognize that things will look different once they happen (rationalization). Can surrogation remedy these shortcomings? Several studies show that when people are forced to use others as surrogates, and are deprived of the information that imagination requires, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

We think we will do better with information about a prize, food choices, etc than with information about how a randomly selected individual felt after winning them or eating them. This is because most people don’t know they are like most other people. One of the most reliable facts about the average person is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than average driver, 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better than average teachers, etc. Many studies show that “Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy – not to mention more attractive – than the average person.” We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.

Our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates.

...the information we need to make accurate predictions of our emotional futures is right under our noses... It doesn’t always make sense to heed what people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances.

Final sentence of book:
“There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go sure-footedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.”

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