Sunday, March 26, 2006

Why Don't We Choose What Makes Us Happy?

People are flawed. But it's rarely so well summarized as it is in the paper "Decision and Experience: Why Don't We Choose What Makes Us Happy?" (Hsee and Hastie 2006). The authors recap the many experiments in the literature of behavioral-decision theory that show that people don't choose outcomes that maximize their happiness, due to a number of failures in the human psychological makeup.
The vast popular literature on self-improvement is based on the belief that we aren’t getting everything we could out of life, and is replete with recipes to increase happiness. Recent findings from behavioral-decision research provide evidence that people are not always able to choose what yields the greatest happiness or best experience. People fail to choose optimally, either because they fail to predict accurately which option in the available choice set will generate the best experience or because they fail to base their choice on their prediction, or both.

They identify these biasing problems:

  • Impact bias: We misjudge how severe an impact will be and hence choose the wrong option.
  • Projection bias: We project from our current emotional or physical state how we will feel in the future. Hungry shopper buy more food than needed.
  • Distinction bias: Joint-evaluation versus single-evaluation models screw us up. I pick from a selection of plasma TVs, but weigh attributes incorrectly because in my home I only experience one of them and the factors I weighed weren't relevant.
  • Memory bias: We misremember peak events or significant events, and it influences future choice. (Subjects were lightly tortured with cold water for this one.) The bias disappears with gentle questioning though, good news for therapists.
  • Belief bias: Lay theories about what will make us happy -- or, poor self-analysis. (People probably differ in this area.) This section really highlights how pathetic we are, though: "Another common belief is that more choice options are always better. In reality, having more options can lead to worse experiences [38–40]. For example, if employees are given a free trip to Paris, they are happy; if they are given a free trip to Hawaii, they are happy. But if they are given a choice between the two trips, they will be less happy, no matter which option they choose. Having the choice highlights the relative deficiencies in each option. People who choose Paris complain that 'Paris does not have the ocean', whereas people who choose Hawaii complain that 'Hawaii does not have great museums'."

Failures to follow decisions, another source for the failure of rational paths to happiness, are explained by:

  • Impulsivity: We choose the short term immediate over the long-term outcome.
  • Rule-based decisions: Related to aphorisms and cultural beliefs about "what's right," this is behavior based on rules like "don't waste" rather than rational predictions.
  • Lay rationalism: Related to rules, this category represents the attempt to apply correct reasoning but getting it badly wrong. The 3 types covered here are "lay economism," "lay scientism," and "lay functionalism." "Another manifestation is ‘lay scientism’, a tendency to base choices on objective, 'hard' attributes rather than subjective, 'soft' attributes. For example, when choosing between two equally expensive audio systems, one with a higher wattage rating (a hard attribute) and the other with a richer sound (a soft attribute), most people chose the high-wattage model, even though when asked to predict their enjoyment, they favored the richer-sounding model. A third manifestation of lay rationalism is ‘lay functionalism’, a tendency to focus on the primary goal(s) of the decision and overlook other aspects that are important to overall experience."
  • Medium maximization: People confuse the medium for happiness with the actual results, the most famous example being money. People work harder to get more money but more money itself doesn't increase happiness.

The implications for this type of research are politically worrying, of course (we assume in democratic and capitalist societies that people are capable of choosing what is best for them and should be allowed to do so). For software design and other economic problems, the implications are equally sad; if people can't be relied on to choose the products that are "best" by rational means, then the well-intentioned decisions of designers are that much less important and less related to final market success. Product usability itself is a "soft" factor subject to being sacrificed as unimportant, thanks to lay rationalism and the impact and distinction biases.


Erik said...

Against the political implications, though: I was listening to some public radio program yesterday that mentioned the class of findings that groups are smarter than individuals. Like, if you ask a room full of people to guess how many jellybeans in a jar (I forget the actual example), the average guess is often closer to the truth than any one individual's guess.

By analogy, just because individuals are bad at choosing happiness doesn't mean we can't do it collectively.

On the other hand, if our biases all lead us to predict wrongly in the same direction, we lose. And, well, looking at the present political landscape, it's hard to put much faith in the wisdom of the masses.

Lynn said...

Yes, I was musing on this possibility. It stands to reason that there should be some improvement in the odds for group survival over individual, otherwise why are we programmed to be social etc (it's not just for procreation, of course). Groups must in some way correct for individual weakness, if the right systems are in place. But systems dependent on individual pursuit of happiness aren't the right ones, I'd say.

Anyway, I'd like to see the studies on groups performing better than individuals. It would cheer me up, even if the bell curve is depressing too.

steve said...

I've been around various groups in my life .. from the extremely creative (scientific and artistic) to very fundamentalist religious groups (I was raised in one and have many relatives involved).

The happiest people, by far, are those in the religious groups. I've seen (but not at close range) very happy non-religious groups and always wonder why they are so happy.

It may be that the choice space is severely constrained. Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice)may be onto something.

But back to groups... the religious groups (and probably many others) are highly supportive. You get and (a very important point) give support. Some of these groups openly call their relations "loving" and, in the best examples, that is probably right.

I'm not sure how well these groups perform at tasks. They probably excel if the task is happiness or perhaps some intensely social task like elder or child care. If they are supposed to build a bridge or a computer application, they may not do well (assuming the people have the background).

I'm finding myself, as I get older, relishing simple things and will go out of my way to encourage them. Arranging schedules (often with great difficult and cost) so you can sit with an old friend in silence for an hour as an example. I'm not good at conscious optimal choice, but choices like these are important enough to be very conscious.

Erik said...

It looks like it was this episode of Radio Lab, from last February. (Blogger doesn't allow <cite>?!) The segment I heard was probably "The Invisible Hand", specifically the stuff from The Wisdom of Crowds.

tim said...

I would be interested to know if the decision to write this article produced a "happy" feeling? Aside from my caustic tone, objective group decisions lend to survival, but maybe its the subjective ones that are the ultimate downfall of individuals (i.e. VW Bugs, N' Sync, etc., etc.)

Lynn said...

There is no room for Art without subjective decisions and individual creation, but there's also no room for successful art without the group decisions. So I dunno, Tim. You sound unhappy. :-/