How We Rate Phantom Spaghetti

Okay, clearly Neurontic does not attract the carb-averse. Spaghetti was pretty high up on everyone’s list. Answers ranged from a respectable ‘6’ to a lip-smacking ’10.’

I contacted a few of you to get the specs on your dinners and here’s what I learned:

Yez, a reader after my own heart, gave the meal a perfect ’10’ and described it as follows:

I’m in a small family style restaurant in Italy. The pasta is something like linguini, and it is absolutely fresh. There is a really simple sauce that goes perfectly with the pasta, delicious veggies on the side and the heavenly Italian bread.

Jen R., Neurontic’s favorite culinary student, felt her phantom spaghetti warranted a solid ‘8,’ and said:

It would be marinara w/ fresh basil, onions and mushrooms, plus meatballs – topped with fresh grated Parm. The pasta would be bucatini – which is basically a hollow spaghetti. Ciabatta garlic bread, salad, wine; something simple for dessert. I’m at home, with friends coming over and we would probably eat around 8pm.

Geoff, who apparently isn’t quite as noodle-obsessed as the rest of us, rated his dinner at ‘6,’ and said:

It would be a nice, hearty bolognese, with lamb and pork, mushrooms and lots of garlic.

Okay, so I think we can all agree that those three options sound scrumptious. Neurontic would personally be happy to join you for any or all of the above. But here’s the thing, science is cruel. And for the purposes of this experiment, the spaghetti dinner would be somewhat less pleasant.

Your spaghetti would, in fact, be served cold — in a tin can — on the curb of dilapidated car park under an overpass in industrial Brooklyn. No sauce or condiments would be provided and several men with a penchant for cardboard box houses and screw-top wine would be your dinner companions. It would also be extremely soggy.

Now, I’d be willing to bet good money that you’d adjust your rating to about a ‘-1’, given the chance. But it’s too late. You can’t, which is Gilbert’s whole point: We make predictions about the level of satisfaction future events will give us based on very little information–and, more often than not, we’re wrong.

Why? Because our imaginations are constantly in overdrive. We hear the word spaghetti and our mind’s instantaneously sort through a vast storehouse of data about pasta and conjure up a scene that is likely to result in satisfaction. But this fantasy is assembled based on our past pasta experiences, not on our future pasta reality. When you rated your spaghetti dinner, you assumed two things:

a) That it would look a lot like previously enjoyed pasta dinners, and
b) That it would be fantastic.

The thrust of Gilbert’s argument is that by investing too much faith in our imaginations we often overestimate the level of satisfaction that the future will bring. Conversely, when we paint a mental picture of something that evokes negative associations, like a public speaking engagment, our imagination lures us into assuming the worst. If public speaking has been filed in the “avoid” category, our brains will manufacture images of humiliation and mute panic.

In reality, our spaghetti dinner will likely be marginally less satisfying than expected (though likely not as awful as the one I described) and our speech will be less cringe worthy. The moral of the story: Don’t confuse the future with the past.

I love this exercise because it reminds me just what a powerful tool the imagination is. As Gilbert says of his phantom spaghetti experiment:

Whatever you imagined, it’s a pretty good bet that when I said spaghetti, you didn’t have an unrequited urge to interrogate me about the nuances of sauce and locale before envisioning a single noodle. Instead, your brain behaved like a portrait artist commissioned to produce a full-color oil from a rough charcoal sketch, filling in all the details that were absent from my question and serving you a particular heaping helping of imaginary pasta.

(Stumbling on Happiness, 90)

The imagination may mislead us on occasion, but that makes it no less miraculous. Scientists are in the habit of saying the thing that separates human beings from the “lower” animals is langauge. If I were the one in charge of making grand proclamations, I’d say the truly singular thing about human beings is the ability to imagine.