Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How Happy Are You? Five. (TFS part 4)

I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. In this series I will summarize key parts of the book and supply some comments and reflections on the material.

Part I: Two Systems
Chapters 8-9


System 1 is continuously monitoring the world, making assessments, and answering easy questions. System 2 can answer hard questions, but if a satisfactory answer is not found quickly enough, System 1 will try to substitute a "related" easy question to which it already knows the answer.

Detailed Summary:

These two chapters are dense! They are a catalog of studies about what System 1 is good at and what it is not. A lot of these studies are new to me, so my reading slowed down quite a bit here. Let's go through some of those results describing what some of the easy and hard questions are:

System 1 is good at determining whether someone is a friend or a foe. It is also good at determining two traits about people: their dominance and their trustworthiness. How dominant and trustworthy a political candidate looks influences how people vote (even more than "likability").

System 1 is good with averages, but poor at sums. This leads to a "prototype" bias where people become blind to quantities. For example:
In one of many experiments that were prompted by the litigation about the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill, participants were asked about their willingness to pay for nets to cover oil ponds in which migratory birds often drown. Different groups of participants stated their willingness to pay to save 2000, 20,000, or 200,000 birds.... The average contributions of the three groups were $80, $78, and $88, respectively.... What the participants reacted to, in all three groups, was a prototype -- the awful image of a helpless bird drowning, its feathers soaked in thick oil. The almost complete neglect of quantity in such emotional contexts has been confirmed many times. 

System 1 is good at matching intensities across diverse dimensions. For example, it is good at answering questions like: "If Sam were as tall as he is intelligent, how tall would he be?"

People suffer from the affect heuristic, in which people let their likes, dislikes, and emotional feelings determine one's beliefs about the world and which arguments one finds persuasive.

And one more:

 "How happy are you?" is a difficult question to answer. Kahneman presents the following as "one of the best examples of substitution." The study asked two questions: "How happy are you?" and "How many dates have you gone on in the last month?" When the questions were asked in that order there was zero correlation between the answers. When the order was reversed ("dates?" then "happy?") the correlation was astronomically high. In the second group, people substituted the first question for the second because "dates?" is an easy question to answer that contributes to happiness that is fresh in their mind while "happy?" is a difficult question. Similar results hold when asking about finances or relationships with parents instead of dates.

My Thoughts:

I have been skeptical of the happiness literature that takes surveys about happiness too seriously ever since I saw Justin Wolfers present this paper. "On a scale of 1-7, how happy are you?" just seems like an impossible question to answer, let alone make systematic sense of many peoples' answers to it over time. Happiness depends on a lot of things, and it's unclear whether the feeling is absolute or relative, so what do those numbers mean anyway? My happiness is five. Is that on an absolute scale? Or relative to what my opportunities are right now? Or relative to my neighbor? Or is it an answer to some other question? I only needed introspection to figure out that "happy?" is a difficult question to answer, but I am glad there are actual studies that establish this fact.

This seems like a good time to emphasize the following: utility is not happiness (not even happiness perfectly measured). It is a mistake to think about utility as only squeals of glee. Happiness is one of many emotions. Utility is a more general measure of how well off you are, and a utility function is simply a representation of your preferences over bundles of goods or choices to be made. When you make a decision or consume a bundle of goods you can be better off but less happy. (Higher utility, but lower happiness.) Decisions that lead to lower happiness are not a mistake if they make you better off.

And that's the end! ... of Part I of V. Oh, my. There is a lot to this book! I am really getting my money's worth!

Food for Thought:

1) On a scale of 1-7, how happy are you?

2) Have you ever gone to a movie knowing it didn't have a happy ending? Where you better off because of it? Where you happier because of it?

3) What books, novels, or stories have you read that made you better off but less happy?

4) Have you ever sacrificed your own happiness for others? Where you better off because of that sacrifice? Was society better off?

1 comment:

  1. 1) 7.... seven.... seeeeeevvvvvveeeeeen.
    2) Yes. Titanic. We're about to watch Killing Kennedy. Shanna watched the Notebook multiple times. Re: The Notebook, no to both questions. The other movies - I suspect yes/no.
    3) The Odyssey, Uncle Tom's Cabin, my dissertation (j/k).
    4) Easy answer: In a world of multiple selves, I do this all the time. I work hard today to save for tomorrow-me. Today-me feels good about this for some reason. Tomorrow-me does too. Hard answer: I tend to be "too" self centered, so I'm having a hard time coming up with this one.