Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Interview of Daniel Gilbert

Via PTDR: Mother Jones's Jonathan Stein interviews Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who wrote Stumbling on Happiness last year. Many of the key themes in the book make their appearance in the interview. Here's a sample:

MJ: You write that due to the problems with the human imagination, the best predictor of what will make Person X happy is not Person X's own best guesses, but the feelings of others who are currently going through what Person X might go through. Why isn't this obvious to everyone? Why would so many people hear that claim and say, "No way"?

DG: First, this is sometimes true -- not always. There are certain conditions under which another person's experience will be a better guide to your own experience than your imagination will. But why do most of us reject even this more modest claim? Because we think we are unique. Because I am unique, I don't think someone else's experience of moving to Alaska or marrying a lawyer or drinking cappuccino with mint leaves can tell me much about my own. This turns out to be wrong. People are not as different in their emotional reactions as they think they are. Emotional reactions are generated in large measure by the parts of our brains we share with every other mammal, and people are surprisingly similar in this regard. If there are people who hate salt, fat, sugar, sex, friends, and warmth but love pain, hunger, and social exclusion then they must be very good at hiding because no one has ever seen them.

Oh, here's another bit in which Gilbert is asked to talk about economics:

MJ: Bill McKibben, the writer of "Reversal of Fortune," notes, "Traditionally, happiness and satisfaction are the sorts of notions that economists wave aside as poetic irrelevance. An orthodox economist has a simple happiness formula: if you buy a Ford Expedition, then ipso facto a Ford Expedition is what makes you happy." But the field of "Hedonics" started to change that, and more and more researchers started seeing happiness as an observable, definable thing. Do economics need to be reworked? If so, how?

DG: Yes, the economist's notions of utility (a euphemism for happiness) and revealed preference (the idea that if you buy something then you must like it) need to be revised and abandoned, respectively. Economists used to be very fine psychologists (Adam Smith was clearly both), but somewhere along the way the field decided to trade a nuanced and realistic view of human nature for the simplicity and precision of hypothetical fictions. Economics is in the process of remedying that, and economists now study happiness, take interest in experimental psychology and neuroscience, and so on. Their field is learning a lot from ours and I'm delighted. I hope we will repay that attention by learning some of the lessons they have to teach us (and they have many). Maybe next year.


  1. Blue said...

    "An orthodox economist has a simple happiness formula: if you buy a Ford Expedition, then ipso facto a Ford Expedition is what makes you happy."

    But that doesn't make sense on a larger scale. It seems like most of what I buy doesn't make me happy; it makes me unhappy that I have to buy it in the first place, and that it costs so much.

    But, I suppose, if I'm happier with healthy teeth and gums, then I've got to shell out for the toothpaste and floss, and thus -- while the expedition to the grocery store and the fact that I have to shell out pieces of my already tiny paycheck make me unhappy -- the long-term result of buying these products makes me happy???

    And what if the sample person wanted a Hummer, but could only afford the Expedition (or his wife made him choose the Expedition, etc.). Does this purchase still make him happy?

  2. Anonymous said...

    Isn't Happiness kind of like - over-rated?

    I mean, as long as you contemplate Being Happy, you never are...

  3. Abi said...

    Blue: The quote is meant to show that economics has got it all wrong on happiness! You are on the same side as Daniel Gilbert and Bill McKibben.

    I think one of Gilbert's key points is that we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy. I have links to several pieces by Gilbert, and perhaps you can take a look at some of them. His stuff is full of interesting insights.

    KK: I don't know if happiness is over-rated, but I agree with you that as long as you keep thinking about what will make you happy, you really are not getting it.