Thursday, April 30, 2009

Synthesis of Happiness

Daniel Gilbert is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In this informative and humourous talk he shows how humans make errors in predicting what will make them happy. He talks about the synthesis of happiness and biases including impact bias and belief bias.

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (10): Medium Maximization

To obtain a desired outcome, people have to exert effort. However, the immediate reward may not be the outcome itself but a medium or instrument or token, which has no value in itself but can be traded for the desired outcome. People should be focusing on the relationship between their effort and the outcome, but they may put in more effort to pursue the medium. The presence of a medium could lead people to exert more effort but without a better outcome.

For example, a person may choose an airline which offers more frequent-flyer program points, rather than the one which provides a better experience but lesser points.


Hsee CK, Hastie R. Decision and experience: why don't we choose what makes us happy? Trends Cogn Sci. 2006 ;10:31-7. [Abstract]

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (9): Lay Rationalism

Human beings attempt to make decisions based on rationality and they may ignore the affective influence. The ‘rational decisions’ may prevent us from choosing experiences optimal for happiness.

The three specific manifestations of lay rationalism are: (a) lay economism (focus on economic values), (b) lay scientism (focus on hard rather than soft attributes), and (c) lay functionalism (focus on main function or objective).

Lay economism is the tendency to base decisions on financial/economic aspects and ignore the experiential aspects. For example, while choosing a pizza people may give more importance to the price and size and less to the factors like shape, colour and taste which significantly influence the consumption experience.

Lay scientism is the tendency to base decisions objective (hard) attributes rather than subjective (soft) attributes. Decision makers may thus trust hard facts and discount soft preferences. For example, when choosing between two equally expensive audio systems, most people will pick up the higher wattage (hard attribute) model rather than the one with a richer sound (soft attribute), even though when asked to predict their enjoyment, they would favour the richer-sounding model.

Lay functionalism is the tendency to focus on the primary objective of the decision and overlook other aspects that are important to overall experience. Although functionalism helps us to achieve objectives, it may also in some cases prevent us from an experientially optimal experience.

For example, while driving to office a person may choose the shorter route which helps him to reach office quickly rather than the longer route which has more pleasant scenes and which he would have identified as the more preferable route.

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (8): Rule Based Decisions

Decision-makers sometimes base their choices on rules for ‘good behavior’ rather than what they predicted as the optimal choice. Examples of such decision rules include:

Don’t waste: Research has shown that when people have double-booked an activity, they will choose the one which is more expensive, even if the less expensive one is more enjoyable.

Seek variety: The concept of variety being the spice of life may make people make decisions contradictory to their own predicted experience of a repeat particular experience having the ability to generate greater happiness.

A boy may be quite happy in the company of a girl, but the concept of seeking variety may cause him to date different girls only to realize that this variety didn’t add to his happiness.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (7): Impulsivity

To gain optimal happiness decision-makers not only need to make accurate predictions about what will bring in maximal happiness, but also act on their predictions. This means that some people even after they have identified what will bring in optimal happiness, may not choose it.

One reason for the inability to follow accurate predictions is impulsivity.


Impulsivity leads to the choice of an immediate gratifying option at the cost of long-term happiness.

Although the inability to predict long-term experience may be the cause of impulsivity in some cases, in most cases impulsivity is due to a failure to follow predictions. For example, drug abusers may accurately predict that the short-term pleasure from drug abuse may undermine their long-term or even overall (short-term + long-term) happiness. However, their continuing to do so (before dependence also becomes a factor) could be attributed to impulsivity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (6): Belief Bias

Although people lack accurate knowledge of basic psychological processes which make them happy, they do have beliefs about basic processes. These lay theories are developed over a period of time in situations where they are valid, but are then over-generalized to situations where they do not hold.

The common belief-biases are:

Contrast effects: A classic question which highlights our perception of the contrast effect is: ‘Will you enjoy a glass of wine more after sampling an expensive estate-bottled wine or a cheap table wine?’ People usually believe that when a product of superior quality is experienced, it diminishes the appeal of another product of lesser quality. However, in one study it was shown that although students believed that eating a tasty jellybean would reduce the enjoyment of a less tasty jelly bean at a later time; but this contrast actually was not observed.

Adaptation: People generally believe that repeated exposure to an event will decrease the pleasure it gives. People may in fact grow to enjoy a certain kind of music more as they repeatedly hear it.

More choice is better: People believe that having more options is always better. However, more choices can sometimes make people unhappy. 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, whatever option they choose.

Certainty: It is generally believed that reducing uncertainty will increase happiness. However, certainty can reduce the pleasure of positive events and this is sometimes referred to as the ‘pleasure paradox’. Most people do not recognize this fact and under
some circumstances, seek certainties that diminish their pleasure rather than uncertainties that prolong it.

The organizer of a get-together may feel happy if she comes to know that many guests have praised the arrangements. She may not feel the same happiness, if she comes to know who had specifically praised her preparations.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (5): Memory Bias

People draw on their memories of past events to forecast their reactions to future events. However, this process has been shown to introduce biases into evaluations. Memory based evaluations are influenced by the peak-and-end rule. This rule states that people’s global evaluations of previous events can be predicted by the affect experienced during just two moments: the moment of peak affect intensity and the ending. This sort of evaluation generally ignores the event’s duration and other related events.

Thus if people remember last year’s family outing by recalling its rare moments of thrill on the water-rides, then they may make predictions and plans accordingly, only to find themselves once again jostling in ticket and food queues at an overcrowded park.

There is also a common tendency to recall and rely on atypical instances. In studies, participants who were asked to recall a single instance of an event, or to recall no
event at all, made extreme forecasts about the future.

To counter memory bias it is suggested that one should recall more than one past event of that type and also focus on the whole event.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy(4): Distinction Bias

Distinction bias occurs because choices and predictions are made in one evaluation mode, and when the experience occurs, the evaluation mode is different. Though this may initially sound to be similar to the projection bias, it is quite different. When choosers or predictors compare multiple options or scenarios, the evaluation is said to be made in the joint evaluation (JE) mode. The actual experience typically takes place without the comparator options, wherein the chooser savours only the chosen option. Here the evaluation is said to be made in the single evaluation or separate evaluation (SE) mode.

Differences which may appear distinct and significant in JE mode may actually be inconsequential in SE. Thus, due to differences in JE and SE, people in JE may overpredict the experiential difference between alternatives in SE.

At a party, a young man was introduced to two attractive ladies. He was wondering whom to ask for a date. He felt a rapport with one of the girls, but he asked the other one out because she was taller of the two. While on the date he realized that the girl’s being tall didn’t help the conversation and the happiness levels much. The girl’s being tall dictated his choice in the JE mode, but made no difference in the SE mode.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (3): Projection Bias

Projection bias occurs because a person maybe in a particular visceral (emotional) state while making the prediction, while he maybe in a different state while actually experiencing the event. For example, a person maybe rested, hungry or sexually aroused while making a choice for happiness, while he maybe tired, satiated or sexually unaroused while experiencing the selection.

Thus a hungry person tends to pick up a lot of varied food-stuff from the market, which he may not actually enjoy later.

People might tend to understand that their tastes may change, however they may systematically underestimate the magnitudes of these changes.

Projection bias may occur not only when people make predictions for their own happiness, but also when they make choices for others.

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (2): Causes of Impact Bias

Focalism: One cause of the impact bias is focalism. People pay too much attention to the main event which they are considering and may neglect other simultaneous events that will alter the impact of the main event.

Sense making: People have a tendency to make sense of events. By making sense of events people adapt emotionally to them. This is useful for events with a negative affect, but the same process also may also work for events with a positive affect.

Thus a student who receives higher than expected marks may initially feel happy, but then she would start searching for reasons for her higher marks. Once she has the explanations in place, the event would seem more normal and she would generally feel less happy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Choosing What Makes Us Happy (1): Impact Bias

To choose the optimal option to maximize happiness we need to

1. Predict accurately which option amongst the available choices will generate the best experience AND
2. Base the choice on the prediction.

Researchers have shown that people do not either predict or choose what maximizes their happiness, or even both.

Inability to predict the accurately how we may feel about a future event, may be due to various biases.

Impact Bias

Research has shown the people are unable to predict both (i) the intensity of an emotional event and (ii) as to how long it will last.

For example, cricket fans are generally not as happy as they expect themselves to be when their team wins.

In one study, voters in a gubernatorial election predicted that they would be significantly happier a month after the election if their candidate won than if their candidate lost. However, the supporters of the winning and losing candidates were just as happy a month after the election as they were before the election.

Thus if consumers become aware that buying a particular brand is not going to make them happy, their buying choices may change and they may choose to spend their money on something else.