A-Z: Dewey Decimal 100: Figuring Out Our Futures

For the fourth A-Z list, I'm tackling non-fiction, Dewey Decimal style.

For the 0-99s, I read Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero.

For the 100s, I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert: 152.42 Gilbert at Portland Public Library.

The title sounds like a self-help book. It isn't. It belongs in the section that tackles philosophy. In this case, Gilbert is discussing the science of how people make decisions, how the brain operates. He doesn't actually get to happiness until almost the end of the book.

His ultimate point: human beings are exceptionally good at imagining the future; since they are also exceptionally bad at imagining the future correctly, they are exceptionally bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Gilbert's point is the reason that science-fiction, even Asimov's, revolves around the world the authors know; thus, 1960s Star Trek has beeping buttons, and 1990s Star Trek has flat computer screens, and so on. (The most truly prescient part of 1960s Star Trek were the communicators, but even those had a kind of current-day cousin in the form of huge walkies-talkies.)

Gilbert details the reasons that humans are so bad at imagining the future by referencing multiple studies as well as studies combined with neurological scans--quite frankly, it's the kind of sociology I can get behind.

It comes down to something that proponents and antagonists of AI often seem to misunderstand. However Spock-like/Sheldon-like human beings pretend to be, emotions are a part of decision making. The reactions we have to events in the real world and to imagined events both involve emotional judgment; until computers can mimic this, they truly can't form judgments at all.

Gilbert doesn't talk about computers; he talks about the brain's remarkable ability to separate an imagined emotional judgment from an emotional judgment related to reality. That is, when we are faced with a real choice--a red light--we hugely favor it over an imagined choice--a green light--because the brain wants us to survive.

However, since an imagined event and a real event both entail actual emotional responses, those actual emotional responses can get massively confused, especially since human beings are remarkably bad at realizing that time will alter an emotional response. Gilbert shows that people often feel far less awful after a traumatic event--losing a job, receiving a terrible medical diagnosis--than they imagined they would.

Humans rely on comparisons to understand the value of things, but those comparisons, by necessity, are all performed in the present. That is, we compare experiences to those we are currently undergoing or have already undergone, not to experiences that may or may not happen in the future even when we are imagining the future

Unfortunately, when we imagine future experiences by comparing them to similar past experiences, we encounter the problem not only of confabulation (mixing up memories) but of cropping those past experiences, even to the point of employing a narrative. In one study, men and women recorded their emotions during a period of time. When they were asked to look back and remember how they felt, they remembered their past feelings based on gender expectations (women "remembered" feeling more sensitive; men "remembered" feeling less) even though at the time their feelings were far more gender neutral. The same type of thing happened between Asian Americans and European Americans. The Asian Americans actually recorded more positive emotions but "reported that they had felt less happy and not more." (Ah, European Americans and their endless pursuit of happiness.)

In sum, people are BAD at predicting what will make them happy.

The solution: since people are relatively good at knowing what they feel in the present (if not the future or the past), the best approach is to request impressions ("How do you feel?") from someone currently experiencing what we might want to do in the future. Studies have shown that this is a remarkably effective tool (i.e. people actually do feel better for knowing spoilers).

I used this technique when I contemplated getting a Ph.D. On the one hand (negative), it would entail far more debt, which makes me want to die inside. On the other (positive), it could mean working at a university, which could entail (supposedly) greater job security. On the first hand, I would be competing with people with three Ph.D.s and four M.A.s (how many degrees was I going to have to get in this rat race?). On the other, I would satisfy social pressure (which is quite powerful) by becoming a "real" professor who worked at a "university". On the first hand, I would have to move, which I had no desire to do, and go through another bout of being a student. On the other hand, I would prove that I was ambitious and could accomplish a long-term goal.
Who decides what is relevant?

I could imagine myself doing what I currently loved, working at a community college, teaching
English classes.

I could imagine myself teaching at a university like Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces.

I knew enough to know that imagination wasn't going to help me. I could end up totally miserable in either case. So I went online and did research. Truthfully, I knew where I was heading. The negative column obviously increased my tension and the positive column seemed mostly comprised of making other people happy--which my personal philosophy says is a bad reason to do stuff (though Gilbert points out that believing untrue realities--such as "children make us happy"--prove beneficial to society overall).

However, I wanted to be sure, and I continued to waver until I came across well-written comments by a person who had gotten a Ph.D. in the Humanities; he or she (I can no longer remember) clearly and non-aggressively expressed the downsides and upsides of that decision and wrapped-up with how they currently felt. It was the final push I needed to make up my mind.

And now I get to teach people who truly need help rather than being tied to a higher educational  system that increasingly fills me with dismay as students pay more and more money so that system can continue to charge them more and more money. 

Gilbert is right: asking advice works!

Of course, Gilbert would point out that once people make decisions, their brains expend extra effort to justify those decisions.

Or, as a children's counselor once told me, "Children and adults do things for the same reasons. Adults are better at rationalizing those reasons."

Ah, well, whatever works.

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

The Stoic philosophers taught that one should visualize horrible outcomes: i.e. a death of your child, in order to inoculate yourself to sadness. (Child death being very high back then.) Recent, studies have shown for some people this works really well. (Though there are those who are better off with positive thinking.)