Last week, the professor for my internship class began our weekly meeting with the following statement: “nothing tastes better than a stolen watermelon.”
Noting the perplexed looks on our faces, he offered an explanation. We were treated to a short story about a boy who steals a watermelon, noticing the ones he steals are much “sweeter”. The obvious moral to his story: perception often influences our experiences than the event itself. The question he then asked is: why does stolen watermelon taste better?? The unexpected delight of enjoying ill-gotten booty, is what increased the boys pleasure of the watermelon….
….this story naturally resulted in a class discussion on recent observations we had clients that week. I left that day reflecting on how my own life had at times, been affected by poorly thought-out hedonistic desires…
In my worn out mental state, it took me some time to figure out where I heard this story before:
“I know how a prize watermelon looks when it is sunning its fat rotundity among pumpkin vines and ‘simblins;’ I know how to tell when its ripe without ‘plugging’ it; I know how inviting it looks when its cooling itself in a tub of water under the bed, waiting; I know how it looks when it lies on the table in the sheltered great floor-space between house and kitchen, and the children gathered for the sacrifice and their mouths watering; I know the crackling sound it makes when the carving knife enters its end, and I can see the split fly along in front of the blade as the knife cleaves its way to the other end; I can see the halves fall apart and display the rich red meat and the black seeds, and the heart standing up, a luxury fit for the elect; I know how a boy looks, behind a yard long slice of that melon, and I know how he feels for I have been there. I know the watermelon which has been honestly come by and I know the taste of the watermelon which has been acquired by art. Both taste good, but the experienced know which tastes best.” – Mark Twain
When considering the issue of hedonistic logic (if there is such a thing), what sort of behavioral freakonomic principles guide our decisions?
As I pondered this question, one individual came to mind: Social Psychologist, Daniel Gilbert. I first learned about his work when I watched the PBS Documentary series: “This Emotional Life”. Naturally, as a self-help junkie I bought his book “Stumbling on Happiness”. Finally, in the context of my educational endeavors, I’ve read some of his research articles. What follows are intriguing insights based on his work, as they apply to my own lived experience:
Hedonistic Behavioral Freakonomics 101
#1. PERCEPTION OF EVENTS –
“The representation of…an object is…empowered to guide behavior as if it were true prior to a rational analysis of the representation’s accuracy. (Gilbert, 1991, p. 116).”
The importance of belief in comprehending assorted life events….
In an article titled: “How Mental Systems Believe”, Gilbert, (1991), provides insight on how we make sense of our lives. Research seems to shows that problems aren’t often a matter of “what we’re looking at but how we are choosing to look at it”. Gilbert, (1991) explains that acceptance of an idea is critical to a comprehension of it. If you think about it, assessing a life situation requires us to examine what it “means to me”. What are the knowable facts in this situation? What does this mean for my future goals and plans? How do I feel about the direction is heading in?
For example, I have been forced recently to make a tough decision about my education. I’m dropping out next quarter in order to find an internship placement that can better fit my specific needs. My mind is filled with anxieties about what the future holds.
*What if I don’t find anything better?
*How long is it going to take me to graduate
*Will I be able to find a job once I’m done?
Depression sets in as I consider the treacherous path to here. I’ve really paid a huge price for those early childhood traumas. I mourn a loss of something abstract missing within. My mind fills with anger over the unhealable hurts left behind….
….As I type these very words, the emotions melt away like an ice cube on hot pavement. Slowly emotional equilibrium is restored, and with it a sense of clarity, I can’t help, but laugh at what I’ve just typed….
So how might Gilbert’s insights apply to this situation????
In a recent post titled “Nature of Belief Systems”, I define belief as either: (1) an expression of trust and faith in something or (2) the acceptance that something is true and exists. Defined in this way, beliefs represent a “what if” mental representation of our situation. In order to understand the long-term implications of my decision, I must first accurately comprehend the facts: (1) I need my job, (2) I can’t reduce my internship hours, (3) I can’t maintain this 70 hour schedule for the next year….
So with this as my current reality, how might I analyze my options, and the consequences of my decision? My approach has been to examine all potential alternatives from a “what if” perspective. What might the outcome of each option be? How will I feel about this “what if”? In this sense an accurate understanding of things requires both comprehension and acceptance. This acceptance allows me to wrestle with the question: “what does this situation mean for me?” In this respect belief is a component of part of our personal meaning making process.
*Beliefs are often misinterpreted as byproducts of external events…
*Beliefs also exist as a cause for the events themselves. Situations can be believed into being.
According to Gilbert, (1991), doubt is much more difficult…
Gilbert, (1991), uses the term “cogntive business” to describe the mental state of somebody who is attempting to multi-task. As a wife, mother, full-time student, & healthcare worker, I constantly have several “irons in the fire”. Typically, individuals examine hypothetical alternatives by examining them “as if” they are true. By comparing these alternative mental representations of a life event, we can better understand how we feel about the options. It is only through this process that inconsistencies are then uncovered. Doubt, develops later as truth dissipates and fallacies emerge. The entire process is 10x more difficulty if you’re “cognitively busy”.
“the ontogeny of belief is at least consistent with the idea that unacceptable is a more difficult operation that acceptance. Not only does doubt seem to be the last operation to emerge, it also seems to be the first to dissappear, Gilbert, 1991, p111).”
#2. UNDERSTANDING OUR CHOICES –
The next intriguing insight in Gilbert’s work, pertains to how we make sense of the options available to us. How do we determine what we feel about the options available? Wilson, Gilbert, et al, (2003), use the term affective forecasting is used for “people’s predictions about future feelings (p. 346).” The meaning of current events and the actions we take are based on how we believe we might feel in the future,…
I imagine graduation as a wondrous day. The ten-ton weight of this long journey, I can now move forward. I get weekends free. No more papers or exams, (yippie!!)
I imagine graduation as a terrifying culmination of years of effort. Will it prove fruitless in the end? Will I find a job waiting for me at the conclusion of this journey?
Affective forecasting requires us to develop an understanding of our situation. Once we have a mental representation of events that satisfies us, we can begin predicting future feelings.
Wilson, Gilbert, et al, (2003) describe four components of affective forecasting….
*We try to predict the specific nature of our future feelings…
*We try to predict the valance (+/-) of our emotions.
*We try the intensity and duration of what we will feel…
As you might suspect, we tend to make mistakes at every step in the process and are often quite lousy at knowing what we will feel at some future point. Mistakes can be right at the outset, when we misconstrue a situation, and develop faulty representation of it. Wilson, Gilbert, et al, (2003), also note errors in prediction within each of the four components of affective forecasting. While we are often accurate in predicting the general nature of our emotions, we are often inaccurate in knowing the degree of those emotions. Additionally, our future predicted emotions are often imagined in an “overly simplistic” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p348) manner. Finally, we tend to overlook our abilities to acclimatize emotionally to situations. Over time, as the “newness” of a situation wears off, we tend to revert to an emotional homeostasis. Gilbert, et al, (2000), describe this unique ability as our “psychological immune system”….((more on that later))
#3. SENSE-MAKING & EMOTIONAL EQUILIBRIUM…
“people’s emotional reactions to life events become less intense with time, a phenomenon we call emotional evanescence” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003).
Over the years, I’ve been fascinated at how the healing process is affected by things beyond our control or understanding. At work are spiritual and psychological factors that allow individuals to heal, recover, and thrive great physical and emotional trauma. When encountering patients like this the psychological immune system is vividly displayed before me. From time to time, I find myself imagining what it is like to be in their shoes: (quadriplegia, cancer, et). The idea of this in a “what if” sense produces unthinkable negative emotions.
According to Gilbert’s research the sense-making processes underlying our ability to re-establish an equilibrium involve four key phases…
“First, people orient to unexpected but relevant information in their environment.” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 371)
As it pertains to my current educational endeavors, I’m currently in the emotional rollercoaster phase. Internship requirements entail an array of unexpected factors that often act as monkey wrenches in our well-laid plans. Preconceived notions of the counseling profession are immediately challenged by the daily realities of the job. New areas of interest open up that you hadn’t considered previously. The daily grind of family life, work, and internship responsibilities can quickly overwhelm one. This produces heightened stress and exhaustion as your self-care falls into the toilet. In my current set of circumstances with every unexpected bit of information my mental state falls into An unpredictable flux.
*Learning of recent changes in program requirements leaves me worried about how this influences my projected graduation date.
*Hearing about opportunities to work kids, leaves me feeling hopeful.
*Realizing that an unexpected illness has result in a doubling of my group therapy class workload, I’m now stressed.
“Second, people have more intense emotional reactions to unexpected, relevant information than to other events.” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 371)
With each bit of new information, I’m hit out of left field. Since it comes at me in the midst of a busy day, my mind is preoccupied and I’m thrown into a mental flustercuck. Left with an uncertain future, it often seems in that moment as if the “rug has just been pulled out from under me”. Without an ability to stop and consider this new information thoughtfully, my own worry-wart nature takes over. I vacillate between anxiety, stress, depression, and periods of hopelessness. You see, this endeavor has been the result of just under six years of effort. Its been a long journey, and I would really hate to come out of this “empty banded” with nothing to show for myself.
“Third, once an unexpected event occurs and people have a relatively intense emotional reaction, they attempt to make sense of the event, quickly and automatically.” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 372)
As soon as it becomes clear that these crazy hours (70+) are more than I can handle, I decide to switch gears. After struggling to find a new internship placement at the last minute, I’m forced to accept that I might need to “take a quarter off”. I vacillate between depression, stress and excitement at the idea of having time off. These last two weeks have been a crazy rollercoaster and I need to find a way to regain equilibrium. How does one learn to have faith in the end goal, despite a continual onslaught of facts that each lead one to a different conception of what the future might hold?
“Fourth, when people make sense of an event it no longer seems surprising or unexpected, and as a result they think about it less and it produces a less intense emotional reaction.” (Wilson, Gilbert, et al, 2003, p. 373).
I talked with my mom earlier today. She shared me the story of her long and arduous educational journey. As a retired physician, she has loads of advice. I told her I’m going to take a quarter off while seeking a new internship opportunity. I’m taking advantage of this time off to focus on passing the licensure exam. In the course of her career, she has had to take an exam for licensure 3x in her life. She described doing this once while working full-time and holding down the fort at home alone while our dad took a 6-month research sabbatical opportunity in California. Her mental state was very much like mine. She was overwhelmed and drained….
It helped to hear this story. Today while “clocking some hours” at my internship site, I heard similar stories. Since many of them are nontraditional students, they had survived what I’m going through now. I didn’t feel so alone, and am coming to acclimatize to the experience.
Errors in Cost-Benefit of Life Events & Goals…
The information above provides a quick-and-dirty overview of the process of affective forecasting: (how we predict “future feelings” as a result of present-day decisions). In this section, I’d like to review common sources of error in predicting “future feelings”. Affective forecasting errors cause miswanting. “Miswanting is the case in which people do not like or dislike an event as much as they thought they would (Wilson, et al, 2000, p. 821). These cost-benefit miscalculations cause a great deal of rainbow chasing. We create complex plans and lofty goals to achieve an idealized future state of preconceived happiness. Meanwhile, opportunities for happiness in the present are readily available around us, should we choose to pay attention…
“We treat our future selves as thought they were our children, spending most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves (Gilbert, 2009).”
With all this said, here are common miscalculations that pertain to most of us…
“Empathy gaps and projection bias suggests that people who are in one psychological state…have considerable difficulty predicting how they will think, feel, and act when they are in the opposite psychological state.” (Gilbert, et al, 2002, p. 430). Projection bias involves assuming current preferences pertain to our future selves. Empathy gaps happen when we are unwilling to see beyond our current transitory feeling state.
“[People] may predict their feelings by forecasting (imagining their feelings when the impacting event occurs…or by backcasting (imagining their feelings in a future period, then considering how these feelings would be different if something happened. (Ebert, et al, 2009, p. 353). Interestingly, research shows that forecasting & backcasting greatly influence how we predict the hedonic impact of future events.
“People seek extraordinary experiences – from drinking rare wines and taking exotic vactions to jumping from airplanes and shaking hands with celebrities. But are such experiences worth having?…Studies suggest that people may pay a surprising price for the experiences they covet the most (Cooney, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2014, p.2259).”
“Although negative expectations may have the benefit of softening the blow when a negative event occurs, they also have the cost of making people feel worse while waiting for that event to happen” (Golub, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2009, p. 277). In other words, being a worry wart doesn’t really do anybody any good.