The following is a chapter-by-chapter summary of Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness. In the future, I may write more summaries of books that I think deserve them.
Stumbling on Happiness identifies the bad thinking strategy behind many of our worst decisions. The imagination, explains Gilbert, is a machine that pumps out bad predictions. Learning how to avoid forecasting with our imaginations can help us improve decision-making and ultimately, get happier.
“We treat our future selves as thought they were our children, spending most of our hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.”
The analogy that opens Stumbling on Happiness encapsulates the issues that the rest of the book deals with. Most people care about their future selves almost as much as they care about their current selves. They take care of them, look out for them, work hard and make sacrifices for future benefits. Yet despite how easy it sounds, people constantly fail at this job.
We choose careers that our future selves hate. We move to cities that our future selves can’t wait to move out of. We eat unhealthy foods that leave our future selves looking fat and feeling guilty.
We know ourselves better than anyone. Shouldn’t we be experts at predicting what our future selves will want, like, hate, need? How are people so bad at keeping their future selves happy and well cared for?
These are the questions that Gilbert poses us. Hopefully, by the end of the book we’ll have a better understanding of why we fail and how we might do better.
PART 1: PROSPECTION
CHAPTER 1: Journey to Elsewhen
Gilbert boldly tries to distinguish humans from all other animals in a single statement: “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.” Other animals cannot feel anxious about their plans for tomorrow or weep at the thought of growing old. They cannot imagine different hypothetical scenarios and how desirable they might be. Nor can they drive themselves crazy with neurotic speculations about upcoming scenarios. Sure, animals might act as if they can predict the future, but these are only evolved mechanical instincts that evolution has programmed into them. None of these animals possesses an imagination.
Gilbert invents the term “nexting” to emphasize this distinction. Nexting is when you use past and present experience to anticipate future experiences. When you read a sentence, you are constantly nexting at the upcoming word. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to read nearly as fluently. Monkeys and some other animals and babies possess the ability to next, but they cannot imagine abstract possibilities such as what they want to be when they grow up or whether they’ll get made fun of for how they look.
This ability humans have to imagine the future arrived 2 or 3 million years ago when the size of the human brain more than doubled in mass. Most of that growth went to the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for imagining the future. If someone were to have his frontal lobe unexpectedly impaled on an iron rod, as happened to Phineas Gage in 1848, he could appear on the surface to have miraculously escaped unscathed. But if you were to ask one of these people what they plan to do tomorrow, you couldn’t get much of an answer from them. They might be aware in abstract terms that such a thing as the future exists, but they would not be able to envision it.
Those of us with fully functioning frontal lobes are unable to shut off thoughts about the future. They charge at us unbidden and wreak their havoc. Researchers have found that about 12% of our thoughts are about the future. Why can’t people just stay in the here and now?
For one thing, thinking about the future can be pleasurable. Sometimes it’s more pleasurable than actually being there. We like to imagine nice scenes from our real or imagined futures so much that this can bias us toward optimism. Most people are too optimistic about their chances of having long lives, staying married, keeping away venereal disease, not getting into car crashes, etc.
But sometimes, we do imagine unpleasant scenes. This bad habit actually originates from a habit that is useful for two reasons:
- Anticipating unpleasant events can reduce their impact
- Scaring ourselves with anticipated horrors can motivate us to avoid these scenarios
Ultimately, our desire to map out the future is about control. Humans are born into a world of chaos desiring to make sense of their surroundings. The better one is able to predict the future, the more control one has over one’s own destiny. The problem is that, although it feels as if we have a good idea about what will happen and how we’ll feel about those events, we actually aren’t much good at predicting this stuff.
PART 2: SUBJECTIVITY
CHAPTER 2: The View from in Here
Everyone feels like they know what “happiness” means but it’s tough for multiple people to agree on a definition. Happiness isn’t something that we can show each other and measure with a ruler – it’s an experience. All we can do is describe it in relation to other things, or tell of which things make us happy and hope other people can analogize to their own lives. We all more or less understand what others mean by happiness, but we’re still dealing with a vague concept.
Over the centuries there have been many attempts to define “happiness” in different ways, such as the Ancient Greeks did by tying it to virtuous behaviour, but none of these definitions have been very useful. Gilbert distinguishes between three kinds of ways in which the word “happiness” is used: emotional happiness, moral happiness, and judgmental happiness.
Emotional happiness is like subjective wellbeing. It’s that feeling that we all understand but none of us can describe. Putting our subjective experiences of happiness into words is like trying to put our subjective experiences of the colour yellow into words. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – and talking about yellow and reporting about happiness are limited in much the same way. This is by and large the kind of happiness we want to learn more about but the trouble is that we can’t know whether the experience I call happiness is similar to the experience you call happiness. Maybe we both call lemons and rubber duckies “yellow,” but you actually perceive them as a colour I would personally call “purple”? Furthermore, we even struggle to remember our own recent experiences with much precision.
Moral happiness is the Ancient Greek kind of happiness – what they called eudaimonia. They believed that true happiness could only be induced by virtuous behaviour. According to this view, a sinner on vacation would be highly unhappy while a saint being burnt at the stake will continue to beam with happiness. As Cicero writes, “Happiness will not tremble however much it is tortured.” This violently clashes with our contemporary intuitions. Happiness is almost always understood as something that we’d actually desire for ourselves. If we can be happy but still burn at the stake, then happiness loses a lot of its appeal.
Judgmental happiness is when people use the word “happiness” to express their beliefs about the merits of things, such as in the sentence, “I’m happy they caught the little bastard who broke my windshield.” The speaker might not actually be glowing with fuzzy feelings, but he is expressing his satisfaction with a certain state of the world.
Now back to the difficulties with emotional happiness. We often feel strongly about our intuitions of when and where people feel happy. Life as a conjoined twin is commonly anticipated to be so bad that doctors often separate conjoined twins at birth, even at the risk of killing one or both babies. Yet when you ask adult conjoined twins how happy they are, they almost universally report very high levels of subjective wellbeing. How can this misunderstanding exist?
There are two theories we might consider to explain this difference of opinions. One is the language-squishing hypothesis. This is the hypothesis that the conjoined twins in our example are using language differently from others. Maybe when most people rate their happiness as an 8 on an 8-point scale, they mean something different from when the conjoined twins rate their happiness as an 8. Maybe the conjoined twins just have lower standards and hand out an 8 rating to an experience that most people would only give a 4 or 5.
Another hypothesis is the experience-stretching hypothesis. This refers to the idea that the twins’ impoverished experiential background would cause them to experience events differently to other people. So even though both groups of people refer to exactly the same thing when they give a rating of 8 or 4 or 1, the same event might have vastly different effects on both of them. So eating a slice of birthday cake might give most people the experience associated with a 4, but eating the same slice of cake provides the twins with the experience associated with an 8.
However we explain it, one thing we can all agree on is that all claims about happiness are coming from a single point-of-view. It is notoriously difficult to remember experiences after the fact and it is all too easy to exploit this weakness of ours with carefully constructed experiments.
CHAPTER 3: Outside Looking In
In doubting whether the conjoined twins actually feel as happy as they say they are, we’re implying that people can be mistaken about how they think they’re feeling. Can people truly be mistaken about that which should be so apparent to them?
Gilbert draws a distinction between “experience” and “awareness.” For instance, you can read a few lines without taking any of it in, and yet you’ll have been aware because the second time you read it you’ll remember having looked at these lines. Blindsighted people do not experience the visual world but they are evidently aware of it based on the how well they are at navigating it. If we accept that people can be aware of things without properly experiencing them, then it doesn’t seem very difficult to believe that people can misinterpret their subjective experiences by not paying complete attention to them.
But there’s hope. Gilbert thinks there are three premises that together form a basis for comparing multiple subjective reports of happiness against each other.
Premise 1: Tools are imperfect but they help. The pursuit of understanding happiness suggests that there is some kind of happyometer that measures subjective wellbeing precisely. This, of course, does not exist. But all scientific tools have their limitations and we can’t be so demanding as to require perfection.
Premise 2: Of all the various ways to detect happiness, the self-report is the least flawed approach. Other approaches include electromyography, physiography, electroencephalography, positron-emission tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging. All these other approaches are based on self-report evidence, however, so researchers might as well primarily rely on those. Ultimately, identifying and measuring happiness still comes down to people’s expressions of how they’re feeling.
Premise 3: Imperfections in measurement are only a crippling problem when we don’t know about them. The strategy that can be used to solve the weaknesses of subjective self-reporting is what statisticians call the law of large numbers. If we flipped a coin four times and I won 3 out of 4, you would chalk it up to bad luck. But if we flipped a coin 4 million times and I won 3 million of those flips, you would suspect me of cheating. The larger a sample size, the less likely for individual eccentricities to be represented in the final tally. So if two people disagree on a happiness rating, nobody can really resolve that. But if 1000 people self-report and their responses generally match up, this information can be used in a meaningful way.
Now that we have a method for evaluating and measuring happiness, we can return to our thesis question: Why do people consistently mess up in their plans to make their future selves happy?
PART 3: REALISM
CHAPTER 4: In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye
Sometimes other people don’t react to situations the same way we’d expect them to. The conjoined twins claim to be happy even though we feel like we’d be unhappy in their shoes. Some millionaires are unhappy even though we wish we had that much money. We like to imagine how it would feel to be in different scenarios. But how should we react when the people in those scenarios report different experiences than we’d anticipate in ourselves?
Those people aren’t crazy – we are. Humans are very bad at imagining how it would feel to be in different places. Our estimates are simply way off course a lot of the time. But imagination (the faculty that allows us to see the future) shouldn’t get all the blame. It fails because of the same trick in our brain that causes the unreliability of perception (the faculty that allows us to see the present) and memory (the faculty that allows us to see the past).
Let’s start with memory. Over the course of our lives, we intake so much stuff, so much sensory experience and knowledge and internal thoughts, and we just keep adding them to our database, day after day, year after year. That’s a lot of information to cram into the sloppy hunk of cheese between our ears. Our brains are very gifted at figuring this sort of thing out, though. What they do is compress all this information, retaining some key bits and throwing out the rest. When we try to recreate past experiences from memory, we are retrieving certain saved data points and simply “filling in” the rest from scratch. There are a lot of simple experiments that exploit this failure of memory, even when people are informed that the researcher is trying to trick them.
Perception works in much the same way. The human eye has a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches. There are no visual receptors there. Yet we don’t see a hole in our visual field. That’s because our brains are capable of taking all the information around the hole and using it to infer what it’s inside of it. Just like with memory, we use a little bit of information and invent the rest in a way that makes sense to us. Our blind spots are just as easy to exploit in experiments as memory. The “filling in” trick doesn’t just happen with visual perception. People also mishear sounds or infer them based on context. When people hear a cough followed by the sound eel people will claim to have heard the word “peel” if the sentence was “The –eel was on the orange,” but they’ll claim to have heard the word “heel” if the sentence was, “The –eel was on the shoe.”
As much as we learn about these phenomena, we can’t prevent them from happening. We’re born with the default view that objects exist out there in the world and that our perceptions have a 1:1 correlation with the true nature of those objects. This parallels the realist stance taken by the philosopher, John Locke. In contrast, one can take what Gilbert calls an idealist stance, as held by Immanuel Kant. Kant pointed out that in sense-making, people aren’t just absorbing external sensory input, they’ll also bringing their past experiences, knowledge, and feelings to the table. Gilbert says that as we grow up, we slowly change from realists to idealists. But people don’t really outgrow realism as much as outfox it. Our brains continue to get tempted by the urge to confuse the sign with what it signifies, but if we’re on our toes, we can often reduce this urge.
In forecasting the future, we make much the same mistake. We’re invited to a party and we immediately imagine what it would be like to be there and whether we’d enjoy ourselves. Unfortunately, the inferences our brains make aren’t very reliable at informing us of whether we’ll actually enjoy the party or not. When we try to imagine how it would feel to be in someone else’s shoes, we’re subject to the same old failing of the “filling in” trick. We take a few qualities of another person’s life and try to imagine what it would be like for our lives to have those qualities, but our equations leave out all the other qualities of those lives that we haven’t considered.
CHAPTER 5: The Hound of Silence
Our brains don’t just mess up by filling in mental images with made up information. We also tend to accept the absence of something as a sign of unimportance – or we simply don’t notice absence at all. This is often the source of people misjudging probabilities. When something unusual happens, people are prone to either overrating its representativeness in a sample or underrating the mundaneness of the event. This is because they remember the unusual events strongly but forget about all the boring times that nothing unusual happened. A proper Bayesian approach requires a full acknowledgement of the misses as well as the hits, as well as co-occurrences and co-absences.
But people rarely do this in their everyday life. Instead, they imagine/perceive/remember scenarios based on a few key data points, fill in the rest, and completely ignore the existence of everything else. This is especially obvious in common sense forecasting. People routinely overestimate the impact that events like the death of a loved one or a crippling injury would affect their long-term happiness. When thinking about how it would feel to be in these situations, people focus on a few bad experiences but forget to factor in all the other experiences that make up a lifetime. Having vision might be better than having no vision, but blind people do not spend every moment of every day simply being blind and not doing anything else. When we imagine ourselves being blind, all we imagine are all the things we wouldn’t be able to do if we were blind. We ignore all the things that blind people are still able to do. The same mistake is committed when people expect the Californian climate to increase happiness. It only seems that way because when we think about California, we think about climate, and ignore other factors like traffic.
Large objects, of course, appear really tiny when viewed at a great distance. This usually doesn’t fool us. We’re pretty good at recognizing cows from far away and not mistaking them for close-up ants. Yet we make an analogous mistake with time. Experiences that are farther away in time are imagined in less detail, thus our brains have a lot of filling in to do and leave a lot of real details absent. That’s how we end up babysitting a friend’s kid and wondering why we happily agreed to this two weeks ago. Well, two weeks ago, we didn’t know what was going to be on TV right now, or that we’d have ten busy days in a row and would be in the mood for a restful Saturday. Most of the details that should have been most relevant in helping me decide whether or not I would enjoy babysitting today were left out of my forecast because they were too far away to be seen.
PART 4: PRESENTISM
CHAPTER 6: The Future Is Now
When humans make erroneous predictions about the future, they usually err by predicting that the future will be too much like the present. And when they look back at the past, they too easily let their present attitudes influence their memories of what they thought back then. Our present feelings colour our judgments of our past and future feelings. It’s difficult to imagine yourself feeling hungry in the future when you have a full meal in your stomach.
When imagining how future events will make us feel, we run simulations of these events and gauge our reactions to the simulations.
Gilbert explains that, “we generally do not sit down with a sheet of paper and start logically listing the pros and cons of the future events we are contemplating, but rather, we contemplate them by simulating those events in our imaginations and then noting our emotional reactions to that simulation. Just as imagination previews objects, so does it prefeel events.”
Prefeeling is often more successful than logical thinking at predicting future reactions. People unable to experience emotion in the present become less able to predict their emotional reactions to future phenomena. But prefeeling also has limits. When the brain is asked to focus on a real experience and an imagined experience simultaneously, it’s the imagined experience that gets drowned out. This is closing our eyes helps us visualize things: it blocks out the stimulus that is shouting over our imagination. Similarly, when in a terrible mood, it’s difficult to imagine being in a good mood, and when disgusted, it’s difficult to imagine feeling lust in the future, even toward events that might logically be expected to evoke those reactions.
When the weather is bad, people will probably report being less satisfied with their lives. Thirsty people are more likely to imagine the pangs of thirst over the pangs of hunger. Depressed people cannot imagine enjoying themselves at future events. Our present feelings colour our expectations of the future. When asked to forecast how we’ll feel in the future or how we’ve felt in the past, we tend to substitute the question for, “How are you feeling at this very moment?”
CHAPTER 7: Time Bombs
Nobody wants a meal that consists of 7 portions of mashed potatoes. We’d prefer to have some kind of variety. Although the first bite of mashed potatoes might be more pleasurable to you than the first bite of hot dog, there’s only so much mashed potatoes you can eat before wanting to switch to something else. In other words, it really is possible to have too much of a good thing. Psychologists call this habituation and economists call this declining marginal utility.
Variety is a cure for the habituation effect. If we always change what we eat, we’ll always be excited for our favourite meal when we come back to it. If we always hang out with different friends, we won’t get sick of any of them. But variety isn’t the only way to combat habituation. We also have another friend called time. When things are spaced out in time, they no longer feel boring to us when we experience them again. If we only go to a special restaurant once a month, then I’ll have more pleasure from ordering my favourite dish every month than if I decided to change it up “for the sake of variety.”
Gilbert demonstrates this point with a thought experiment. Imagine you’re sitting at a table with a meal of partridge and gumbo before you. First, we need to make a favoring assumption: that the first bite of partridge gives you 50 hedon, while the first bite of gumbo is worth 40 hedons. Second, we need to make a habituation-rate assumption: each subsequent bite of the same dish taken within 10 minutes results in 1 hedon less pleasure than did the bite before it. Third, we must make a consumption-rate assumption: you eat a pace of one bite every 30 seconds. We can use this information to judge that after eating 10 bites of partridge in 5 minutes, it makes more sense for you to transition to your gumbo to receive 40 hedons instead of 39. But if your bites are separated by more than 10 minutes, then it never makes sense to touch your gumbo because your bites of partridge will consistently yield 10 more hedons a pop. Yet people continue to select variety even when their choices are spread out over long periods of time. This is because people tend to envision time as a spatial dimension. Mental images are atemporal, thus when we imagine how we’d feel about something in the future, we really ask ourselves how much we want that thing right now.
We don’t only compare our imaginings to the present. We also compare our perceptions to the past. Human beings are not sensitive to absolute magnitudes but to relative magnitudes. It’s like that old experiment where a frog is dropped in hot water then immediately leaps out, but remains in water just as hot if it’s heated up very gradually over a period of time. The frog isn’t sensitive to the absolute temperature of the water. Rather, he’s comparing the temperature to prior temperatures. Each minute, the water is only slightly warmer than it was a minute ago, so the frog doesn’t feel the pain it felt when it was immediately dropped into hot water.
This habit of comparing to the past applies to human values, as well. People prefer paying $500 for a hotel package that was previously sold for $600, than paying $400 for an identical package that was previously sold for $300. People are willing to drive across town to save $50 on a $100 radio, but they won’t drive across town to save $50 on a $20,000 car. If people show up to a concert realizing that they’ve lost a $20 bill, that won’t prevent them from buying the $20 ticket they showed up for. But if they show up with a ticket and realize they’ve lost it, they aren’t willing to spend $20 on a new one. Asking for a huge favour immediately before asking for a smaller one makes people more likely to accept the small favour. None of these decisions make any sense. What fools people is the brain’s habit of comparing current values to past values. It’s much easier for the brain to compare to the past than to imagine alternate uses of money.
Making the wrong comparisons between two things can lead to wrong predictions about the future. When people are asked to how much they’d enjoy eating a bag of potato chips in a few minutes, their answer depended on whether they had a chocolate bar or a tin of sardines in front of them to compare the bag of chips with. But while eating the chips, there was no difference in enjoyment whatsoever between the sardine group and the chocolate bar group. So the completely irrelevant factor had a pull on people’s predictions but not on their actual experiences.
PART 5: RATIONALIZATION
CHAPTER 8: Paradise Glossed
Most stimuli can mean many possible things but we disambiguate them using at least three different sources of guidance:
- Context: Some words – such as “bank” – have multiple meanings yet we rarely misunderstand a sentence by mistaking a word for another one of its meanings. That’s because the other words in the sentence tell us how “bank” is being used in the sentence.
- Frequency: Our past encounters affect how we’re likely to interpret words. A loan officer is likely to interpret the sentence “Don’t run into the bank!” as referring to a his place of business, not a river bank.
- Recency: People can be primed by recent experiences to favour one interpretation over the other. If you just took out money from an ATM, you’re more likely to understand bank in the sense of “financial institution.”
Unlike lower animals, humans don’t respond to stimuli, they respond to meanings. The automatic interpretations they come to aren’t necessarily the same automatic interpretations come to by others. Our preferences also play a role in this process, as we often exploit ambiguities – that is, do the “filling in” trick on ambiguous stimuli – according to what comforts us. When asked to define “talented,” people will define the word with a definition that includes them. People rate their belongings more highly after buying them than before. People rate political candidates, racehorses, schools, and jobs for highly after choosing them than they did before.
Human interpretations of reality are mixtures of how reality really is and how we wish it were. The habit of navigating between these two competing needs (and dangers!) is what Gilbert calls our psychological immune system. Too much reality and we’d be too depressed to leave our beds, but too many comfortable delusions and we wouldn’t be able to function. Gilbert cites study after study that shows humans holding arguments for disliked conclusions to a much higher standard of evidence than are arguments for favorable conclusions. If people have problems, they want them out of sight and out of mind.
If our mind is constantly navigating between two opposing biases, how do we find out what’s actually true? Gilbert points to science. Good scientists choose the best methods available and stick to them, whatever their conclusions. Bad scientists choose the conclusions they want in advance and then pick the methods most likely to lead to those conclusions. People are bad scientists by nature. For example, after taking an IQ test, some students were given the chance to read material either in support of IQ tests or against them. Those who scored high on the test spent their time reading articles on the merits of IQ tests. Those who scored poorly preferred to read about why IQ tests weren’t very useful. Imagine a court case where the judge listened to the prosecution’s evidence without hearing the defense’s side of the story. Everyone recognizes this as a bad way to find out the facts of the case, but they don’t apply this thinking to facts they’d rather not be true.
CHAPTER 9: Immune to Reality
Most people use heuristics that help them predict their reactions to future events. They expect to feel more regret learning what-could-have-been than simply being left ignorant. They expect to feel more regret when they’ve followed bad advice than if they’ve followed good advice. They expect to feel more regret when their bad choices are unusual, as opposed to conventional. They expect to feel more regret when they fail by a narrow margin than when they fail by a wide margin. Sometimes these theories are right, but sometimes they aren’t.
The psychological immune system explains many instances of humans misjudging their reactions to future events. Humans forget that they’re much better at persuading themselves of things they want to be true, compared to things that they don’t want to be true. So in prospection of getting left at the altar or losing a limb, we expect our lives to take a terrible turn for the worse, but in rosy retrospection, we often feel as if A Good Thing happened because important life lessons were learned.
Gilbert draws an analogy to terrorism to illustrate another aspect of the psychological immune system. Terrorism is based on the principle that certain crimes, those that fall below some critical threshold, will not be reciprocated in full. Similarly, our psychological immune systems only kick in when introduced to suffering of a certain magnitude. For this reason, we often feel better being the victim of an insult, than a bystander to one. When we’re the victims, our own psychological immune systems activate Operation Rationalize. When we’re bystanders, we just think “Ouch, that was a terrible thing to say about Timmy!” But in prospection, we expect to be hurt worse by being the victim of an insult.
Another trigger of the psychological immune system is inescapability. Siblings are forgiven for acts that wouldn’t be forgiven in strangers. Job applicants are rejected for arriving at the interview 2 minutes late, but employees can be regularly late to their shifts without getting fired. We’re more likely to rationalize when we’re stuck with a situation than if we have the option to change. A study was done with two groups of photography students. Students in both groups were forced to choose which of their pictures they would get to take home with them, but in the first group, students were given a few days to change their minds, if they wanted. In the second group, the choice was to be final. Students in the second group, the one with less freedom, reported being more satisfied with their choices. Yet people routinely make sacrifices for freedom that reduces their happiness.
Explanations are also useful for defanging bad experiences. Explaining an unpleasant event can reduce its negative emotional impact. That’s why “writing about your feelings” when you’re sad is such popular advice for kids. Gilbert lists two reasons why unexplained events amplify emotional impact:
- Unexplained events are rare and therefore, perceived as more spectacular and
- Unexplained events are unresolved, so we linger on them, trying to resolve them
Explanations rob events of their emotional impacts because they make events seem mundane, non-mysterious, and resolved. It doesn’t matter whether the explanations are good or not. We just want explanations – whether they’re going to improve our emotional states or not.
PART 6: CORRIGIBILITY
CHAPTER 10: Once Bitten
The final section of Gilbert’s book focuses on how to improve our predictions about the future. There are two ways of doing this: practice and coaching. This chapter focuses on practice and why our natural methods of practicing often fail us.
For one thing, we need to again consider the availability heuristic. When asked to estimate whether there are more four-letter words in the English language with k as their first letter or as their third letter, most people choose the former. Most people are wrong, however. It’s just that our mental dictionaries are more or less organized according to first letter, thus it’s easier to think of examples of words that begin with k. The easier it is to come up with examples of something, the more common we think that thing is, and the more we expect it to happen in the future. The problem is that number of experiences doesn’t directly translate into number of memories. Often, it’s the most memorable experiences that stay with us, even if those experiences are rare. We can wind up taking these rare, memorable experiences as too representative.
The peak-end rule also explains how relying on our past experiences can lead to incorrect predictions about our emotional futures. Our memories of past experiences are biased in certain systematic ways. For instance, we let the ending of an experience dominate our memories. So if we enjoy the first 98% of a movie but despise it’s ending, we’ll give the film a lower score than another one that’s just alright all the way through. In memory, we don’t appreciate experiences based on total happiness experience. We remember them based on a combination of the peak happiness experienced and the final moments of the experience. So a great life of 60 years, followed by 5 alright years is viewed as inferior to a great life of 60 years that ends right there – unless the two lives are examined side by side. When people are allowed to compare the two lives, they prefer the one with more total happiness, but when asked to rank a single one of the two lives, the one with a higher average and end happiness scored higher.
Another way for memories to be bad predictors of the future is when our theories about the world are wrong. When people interpret the past, they usually apply an instance (“there is a footprint on my snowy lawn”) to a theory (“the mailman sometimes walks up to my front door wearing boots”). When our theories are wrong, so might our conclusions (“the footprint belongs to the mailm- oh, hi, Joe!”).
Gender and other cultural assumptions can also bias people toward incorrect memories. Women and men can report similar levels and kinds of emotions throughout an experience and yet remember experiencing more stereotypical emotions in hindsight. In another study, women were asked to keep diaries and rate their happiness over the span of four to six weeks. The volunteers’ ratings of their own happiness showed no correlation with the phase of their menstrual cycles. However, when the women were asked to reread diary entries on certain days and remember how they’d felt, they claimed to have experienced more negative emotions on days in which they were menstruating.
People routinely overestimate the degree to which something will make them feel happy or sad. A big part of this is our misremembering of past experiences. In the next chapter, we’ll discuss whether coaching might work any better.
CHAPTER 11: Reporting Live From Tomorrow
If we don’t know the answer to a question, we can find out from someone that does, whether a teacher, a parent, a babysitter, an expert, a journalist, or just another person that happens to know something. The average person in the world today knows vastly more about how the world works than even some of the greatest geniuses of the past – not because humanity has evolved into a mutant species of geniuses, but because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. If every generation had to start from scratch, there would be no progress. Gilbert suggests that the best way for us to learn about how future events will affect us is hearing from people that have experienced those events.
This book has covered three downsides to imagination:
- The mind excludes some information and fills it in with invented information
- The mind tends to project the present onto the future
- The mind fails to recognize that things will appear different after they happen
Studies found a single antidote that remedies all three of these failures: relying on the experiences of others. People that heard another’s review of a prize were better predictors of how much they’d enjoy the prize than were those who simply imagined what it would be like. And people that relied on another’s review of tomorrow’s lunch were less likely to be biased by their present mood. Relying on surrogates is, on average, more reliable than simply imagining our reactions to situations we’ve never encountered. Yet even after receiving this information, most people refuse to adopt the surrogate strategy.
Gilbert blames our underuse of the testimony of others on the persistent belief that we are unique. People tend to believe that they are special and that nobody else’s experience can tell them how they will feel. Gilbert offers three explanations for why this is the case:
- We know ourselves so much better than we know everyone else, thus it seems to us that we are different from other people
- It’s comforting to think that we are unique, thus the meme has powerful means of transmission
- We tend to think of everyone as being more unique than they actually are, and de-emphasize the ways in which we’re similar
“What’s so ironic about this predicament is that the information we need to make accurate predictions of our emotional futures is right under our noses, but we don’t seem to recognize it’s aroma. 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. Alas, we think of ourselves as unique entities – minds unlike any others – and thus we often reject the lessons that the emotional experience of others has to teach us.”
Our refusal to learn from the experiences of others is the tragic cause of our struggles to forecast our emotional futures. If only we could repel the seduction to imagine our reactions to outcomes, we’d be in better shape to make accurate predictions and ultimately, better decisions.