Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy?

By Samantha K.

Dan Gilbert begins his talk by stating that "...
in two million years the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from the one-and-a-quarter pound brain of our ancestor here, Habilis, to the almost three-pound meatloaf that everybody here has between their ears." He carries on to explain that the human brain not only tripled in size, but was restructured with a new part called the frontal lobe. Now he draws more attention to the pre-frontal cortex, which most importantly acts as an experience simulator. He describes this by explaining that "Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life." Apparently, this is a skill our ancestors did not possess.

He says he is going to run a quick "diagnostic" before he continues. He explains to the audience: "
Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate,and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer. One of them is winning the lottery. This is about 314 million dollars. And the other is becoming paraplegic." Then he displays some statistics that show how happy lotto winners and paraplegics are after one year. As expected, the lotto winners are happier. He then states that he made these statistics up. He finally reveals the real outcomes and states that after one year, lotto winners and paraplegics are equally happy.

He explains that "The research that my laboratory has been doing, that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing, have revealed something really quite startling to us. Something we call the impact bias, which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly. For the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are... In fact, a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness." Why? He asks. "Because happiness can be synthesized." He goes on to talk about Sir Thomas Brown and what he wrote in 1642: "I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me." He says that human beings have something that we might think of as a psychological immune system. "A system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help them change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves." Like Sir Thomas, we have this machine. Unlike Sir Thomas, we seem not to know it.

"We synthesize happiness" He states, "but we think happiness is a thing to be found... we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call natural happiness. What are these terms? Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don't get what we wanted."

He did an experiment with a group of patients who had anterograde amnesia. These are hospitalized patients. Most of them have Korsakoff's syndrome, a polyneuritic psychosis that basically means they can't make new memories. They remember their childhood, but if you walk in and introduce yourself, and then leave the room, when you come back they don't know who you are. They took some Monet prints to the hospital. And asked these patients to rank them from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least. They then gave them the choice between number three and number four. Like everybody else, they said, "Gee, thanks Doc! That's great! I could use a new print. I'll take number three." They explained we would have number three mailed to them. They gathered up their materials and went out of the room, and counted to a half hour. Back into the room, they say, "Hi, we're back." The patients say, "Ah, Doc, I'm sorry, I've got a memory problem, that's why I'm here. If I've met you before, I don't remember." "Really, Jim, you don't remember? I was just here with the Monet prints?""Sorry, Doc, I just don't have a clue." "No problem, Jim. All I want you to do for me is rank these from the one you like the most to the one you like the least." What do they do? Well, they check and make sure they're really amnesiac. They ask these amnesiac patients to tell them which one they own, which one they chose last time, which one is theirs. And what we find is amnesiac patients just guess. These are normal controls, where if they did this with you, all of you would know which print you chose. But if they do this with amnesiac patients, they don't have a clue. They can't pick their print out of a lineup.

He explains; "Here's what normal controls do: they synthesize happiness. Right? This is the change in liking score, the change from the first time they ranked to the second time they ranked. Normal controls show 'The one I own is better than I thought. The one I didn't own, the one I left behind, is not as good as I thought.' Amnesiacs do exactly the same thing. Think about this result. These people like better the one they own, but they don't know they own it. What these people did when they synthesized happiness is they really, truly changed their affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions to that poster. They're not just saying it because they own it, because they don't know they own it. Now, when psychologists show you bars, you know that they are showing you averages of lots of people. And yet, all of us have this psychological immune system, this capacity to synthesize happiness, but some of us do this trick better than others. And some situations allow anybody to do it more effectively than other situations do. It turns out that freedom -- the ability to make up your mind and change your mind -- is the friend of natural happiness, because it allows you to choose among all those delicious futures and find the one you most enjoy. But freedom to choose -- to change and make up your mind -- is the enemy of synthetic happiness."

He gives another example of another experiment he did at Harvard: "We created a photography course, a black-and-white photography course, and we allowed students to come in and learn how to use a darkroom. So we gave them cameras, they went around campus, they took 12 pictures of their favorite professors and their dorm room and their dog, and all the other things they wanted to have Harvard memories of. They bring us the camera, we make up a contact sheet, they figure out which are the two best pictures, and we now spend six hours teaching them about darkrooms, and they blow two of them up, and they have two gorgeous eight-by-10 glossies of meaningful things to them, and we say, "Which one would you like to give up?"They say, "I have to give one up?" "Oh, yes. We need one as evidence of the class project. So you have to give me one. You have to make a choice.You get to keep one, and I get to keep one."

Now, there are two conditions in this experiment. In one case, the students are told, "But you know, if you want to change your mind, I'll always have the other one here, and in the next four days, before I actually mail it to headquarters, "I'll be glad to swap it out with you. In fact, I'll come to your dorm room and give -- just give me an email. Better yet, I'll check with you. You ever want to change your mind, it's totally returnable." The other half of the students are told exactly the opposite: "Make your choice. And by the way, the mail is going out, gosh, in two minutes, to England. Your picture will be winging its way over the Atlantic. You will never see it again." Now, half of the students in each of these conditions are asked to make predictions about how much they're going to come to like the picture that they keep and the picture they leave behind. Other students are just sent back to their little dorm rooms and they are measured over the next three to six days on their liking, satisfaction with the pictures. And look at what we find. First of all, here's what students think is going to happen. They think they're going to maybe come to like the picture they chose a little more than the one they left behind, but these are not statistically significant differences. It's a very small increase, and it doesn't much matter whether they were in the reversible or irreversible condition. Wrong-o. Bad simulators. Because here's what's really happening. Both right before the swap and five days later, people who are stuck with that picture, who have no choice, who can never change their mind, like it a lot! And people who are deliberating -- "Should I return it? Have I gotten the right one? Maybe this isn't the good one? Maybe I left the good one?" -- have killed themselves. They don't like their picture, and in fact even after the opportunity to swap has expired, they still don't like their picture. Why? Because the reversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness.

So here's the final piece of this experiment. We bring in a whole new group of naive Harvard students and we say, "You know, we're doing a photography course, and we can do it one of two ways. We could do it so that when you take the two pictures, you'd have four days to change your mind,or we're doing another course where you take the two pictures and you make up your mind right away and you can never change it. Which course would you like to be in? " Duh! 66 percent of the students, two-thirds, prefer to be in the course where they have the opportunity to change their mind. Hello? 66 percent of the students choose to be in the course in which they will ultimately be deeply dissatisfied with the picture. Because they do not know the conditions under which synthetic happiness grows."

He says that that "The Bard said everything best, of course...'Tis nothing good or bad / But thinking makes it so.' It's nice poetry, but that can't exactly be right. Is there really nothing good or bad? Is it really the case that gall bladder surgery and a trip to Paris are just the same thing? That seems like a one-question IQ test. They can't be exactly the same." He then continues; "In more turgid prose, but closer to the truth, was the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, and he said this... 'The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another ... Some of these situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse for the horror of our own injustice.'" In other words: yes, some things are better than others.

He thinks that we should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we have overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we're prudent, we're cautious, we're thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we're reckless, and we're cowardly.

He presents his entire talk very well. He effectively communicates by using hand gestures, eye contact, and walking around the stage. He also uses a slideshow to provide a visual for the audience. His tone of voice is comfortable and he does not use notes of any kind, showing that he is very knowledgeable about his topic. This helps the talk run smoothly.

Dan Gilbert closes his talk by stating; "The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience."

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