Happiness prediction and an Interview with Daniel Gilbert

The NYTimes has a great interview with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert:

What we've been seeing in my lab, over and over again, is that people have an inability to predict what will make us happy -- or unhappy. If you can't tell which futures are better than others, it's hard to find happiness. The truth is, bad things don't affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That's true of good things, too. We adapt very quickly to either.

So the good news is that going blind is not going to make you as unhappy as you think it will. The bad news is that winning the lottery will not make you as happy as you expect.

Read the whole thing.

Gilbert is the author of Stumbling on Happiness, which I highly recommend picking up if you have time. It is not a self-help book instructing people on how to be happy. Rather he expands the argument that people are fundamentally bad at predicting what will make them happy. Their poor predictions result in strategic errors in decision making. He does have some concrete suggestions about what makes people happy more consistently, but mostly it is a book about psychology.

After reading it, however, I was struck by a philosophical question.

Why are humans so bad at predicting the future? And it isn't just our own happiness that we are bad at predicting. Philip Tetlock shows in his book Expert Political Judgment that human beings are likewise piss-poor at predicting the future of complex systems.

With respect to what makes you happy, you could argue that your tastes change over time. The person that you are today is different than the person you were ten years ago. If you were asked to predict who you will be in another ten years, you would likely do quite badly. On the other hand, most surveys of personality traits suggest that personality is relatively stable over time once the individual reaches adulthood. (Here is a sample paper.) Why you would be so bad at predicting what makes you happy on a background of relative cognitive stability is a conundrum. Perhaps it is that what makes us happy over is both fleeting and relatively random, making it difficult to anticipate in advance.

With respect to predicting the outcomes of complex systems -- like politics, Gilbert makes another argument in his book that I think is relevant. I have argued before that happiness is non-transitive, meaning that what makes you happy will not make another person happy. I would argue that this also goes a long way to explaining why people cannot predict the actions of others in complex system. Setting aside the issue that there are too many actors involved, the psychological temptation is always to assign what you want to the motives of others. You assume that what you would want, they would want. This assumption allows you to predict the outcome. Yet Gilbert shows in his book that this assumption is barely ever true. If people are bad a predicting their own happiness, they are atrocious at predicting the happiness of others.

Realizing how psychologically handicapped people are at prediction, you have to speculate ways that we could maybe get better. Maybe the answer is through the active suppression of our own intuition. I, for one, am the least trustworthy authority in making choices that will affect my happiness. To quote John Cusack in High Fidelity: "Should I bolt every time I get that feeling in my gut when I meet someone new? Well, I've been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I've come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains."

We could look to science; at least it has got some solid truths worked out. In a sense, science attempts to circumvent our innate psychological handicaps in two ways. 1) It cheats. We run experiments over and over until it gets the right answer by brute force. 2) The scientific method involves the voluntary suspension of your intuition. What matter is what the data shows, not the way you think the world should work.

Anyway, something to think about the next time you're sad: you couldn't help it. Your intuition is useless and probably lying to you. You could become the anti-George (see clip below), but I doubt it would help.


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Hmmm, whilst the research into happiness is money well spent, it is too easy to gloss over why adaptation can have extremely adverse consequences for priority-setting in areas like health. Over here the money (in theory) goes towards clinical interventions showing the greatest population-level improvement in quality of life. If you use the values of the blind then adaptation causes their estimated potential for improvement to be vastly diminished. That's one of the reasons why the current rules don't use their values - the general population's assessment of quality of life in impaired states is used (which has problems of its own including question-marks over how realistic *their* values are too). There are difficulties in using either approach to providing values to aid decision-making.

By Terry Flynn (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

I'm not sure that assuming that others want what you want is that pervasive. My books are in storage right now, so I can't reference, but there has been some research showing that children of quite a young age can recognise that others don't like the same things as themselves and give the other person what they want. (From memory, the experiments were done with fish crackers and broccoli.)

Obviously not all people exhibit those skills all of the time but there are so many factors which could come into play in that particular dynamic that I think the variety and complexity of that alone makes the theory overly simplistic.

It seems to me that the underlying assumption in expecting anyone to be able to predict what would make them happy is that people are rational. I believe that is not the case. People are rationalizing, certainly, but not rational in general. There is a great deal of behavior you would never see if people were rational, but you see it every day. The rarity of rational thought is one of the main reasons that science is so hard for most people, and the reason that you see even scientists behaving irrationally about things that are not their "work."

And when it comes to politics, very few people behave rationally. For example, both my parents and my in-laws voted and continue to vote for politicians whose programs actually harm them in very obvious ways.

It shouldn't surprise us that we're bad at predicting complex systems. The real question is this: Why do we believe we're better at predicting complex phenomena than we really are?

We're one of the most complex systems around. It shouldn't surprise us that we can't predict ourselves very well. So, why does it?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 24 Apr 2008 #permalink

A better question to ask - is it an evolutionary advantage for us to be happy? Sadly, I don't think so. A happy person is someone who is satisfied with what they have, not reaching for more.

I think that happiness is a psychological state that we strive for, taste briefly, then we're left wanting more. It's just the way evolution has wired us.