There are many ways to tackle this question, but I mean this in a homo economicus, not biased perspective. If we were great optimizers of some things (experiences, states of the world, utility in the emotional sense), should we be sad upon hearing we lost an opportunity?

The intuitive answer, to me, is yes. But for many things, for most things I have begun to believe otherwise. This is because we combine two distinct meanings of opportunity

Opportunity1 = Something good in the future that is uncertain at the moment and could happen to you, frequently depending on environmental factors outside of your control and some factors within your control in the time between now and the opportunity taking place. Ex: 


  • Getting a promotion
  • Finding a romantic partner
  • Having a really good friendship
  • Having a large H index (for scientific publications)




Opportunity2 = Something good in the future that is uncertain at the moment and could happen to you, but all the actions you could have personally taken that could influence this are in the past, and now only time and chance will determine if it will be the case. Ex:


  • Being approved at Google after the entire interview process has happened
  • Being accepted at Harvard
  • Avoiding wine in your clothing after it has been dropped
  • Being accepted to work with CEA after filling in the entire application. 


I think it is very reasonable to be sad when you lose opportunites1 but completely pointless to be sad over the loss of the second kind, opporunities2. It feels obvious to me, but in case it isn't I'll try to make it explicit:

When you lose opportunities1, you change the course of your future actions, each of your actions, your time and your effort has become less valuable, since you have to do more to get the same odds or even less. 

When you lose opportunities2 you are only being notified of an indexical property, you learn in which of the possible universes you could be you happen to be. You have gained knowledge, you can tailor your future actions regarding other things accordingly. Nothing has become pricier for your efforts, in fact, now you have a better map, and can navigate with ease. 

So let us be neutral or happy with the loss of oportunities2, and gain strenght from the loss of opportunities1. It seems right to allocate emotional and psychological resources to things you can act on, when you are not in flow. Otherwise, you may end up in the hardest death spiral to overcome, learned helplessness.

For political reasons related to my prospective adviser's academic history, all applicants who wanted to study with him didn't make it to Berkeley University.  But hey, I didn't care... That just means I'm in the fun universe in which I actually have to do all the crazy stuff like moving into the unknown, that is a universe of adventure right?

Loss aversion be damned! 


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What does sadness do?

It makes you introspective. If you lost a huge opportunity than it's fine to be a day introspective and think about why things turned out the way they did. If you have to restructure everything in your life because you just lost your wife to a traffic accident, it's can even be useful to spend weeks being introspective. If you are finished with that introspection, sadness doesn't offer added value.

Then you want to switch to an emotional state in which you can take action. Being angry at a loss and not being accepted at a company can provide the motivation to work hard to prepare for your next interview. You can also switch to joy and just let things flow.

That said, for most people it's unproductive to think about what emotions they should feel. It's much easier to just accept the emotions that come up instead of fighting them. Then your brain does the job of choosing appropriate emotions.


Not sure what you mean by "you SHOULD be sad when you miss an opportunity1"? What's the advantage of being sad instead of just shrugging and replanning?

I was assuming a non-transhuman world in which the unnecessary connection between sadness and emotional thoughfulness, as well as sadness and system 2 replanning is a reality. Sorry I didn't point it out explicitly.


I guess I misunderstood what you meant by "There are many ways to tackle this question, but I mean this in a homo economicus, not biased perspective." then. See my reply to ShardPhoenix.

Oh, yes, you did (but this is always the writer responsibility, so it is my fault (Gilbert 2012))

I am writing a text about what Should happen. Not what does happen. Is-ought problem.

I mean't what a rational actor should do, without changing the Is aspect of reality.

So the homo economicus was the Should agent. The is agent is still like us.

I can think of some purposes this sadness might serve - eg signalling or self-punishment (for lack of past efforts) with TDT type considerations for why you wouldn't just skip it.


He specifically said he's talking about "homo economicus"-"rational"-like decision. An agent like that should have no need to punish itself - by having a negative emotion - since the potential loss of utility itself is a compelling reason to take action beforehand. So self-punishing is out. How do you think sadness would serve as a signalling device, in this case?

This is speculative, but if someone isn't upset about losing an opportunity, one could infer that they never really believed that they had it in the first place - whereas if they're upset, perhaps losing the opportunity was just bad luck.

So, if you found out someone you love had died, you wouldn't be sad?

Also, why is your time being less valuable more of a basis for sadness than not getting something for free? Losing an opportunity1 means that at least you can use your time on something else. Losing opportunity2 means that you are just out the benefit. Which would make you more sad: finding out that a concert that you wanted to go to is sold out, or buying tickets, but then losing them?

Seems to me death should be an exception here, I like being sad about death because it 1) signals to myself how important person x was to me 2) signals to everyone else thus 3)causing public group enforcing comotion, which I find emotionally valuable. all three stages in fact. sorry bad keyboardawful punctuation

A reasonable definition of 'sadness' seems to me to be 'observing a low expected utility'. In this case, being sad is just having an accurate map.

That sounds more like dread to me, insofar as we can draw a mapping between emotional states and expected utilities.


I think I agree with the denotation of a lot of this, but I don't quite agree with the connotation of the use of the word 'sad'

For instance, when I was having problems finding a romantic partner, getting sad alone was useless. Being determined to not make the same mistakes again and continuing to try was helpful. But I distinctly recall that being separate and distinct from the sadness, and the sadness was something which I was overdoing to my detriment.

I mean, I feel like you could say "Don't worry about things you can't change. Worry about things you can change in such a way to make your future better without unnecessary worry." and that would have a similar denotation to the above points, but it would seem to have a substantially better connotation to me.

Sounds a bit like the Serenity Prayer.

Yep, change God for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that is exactly what I wanted to say.

Can humans choose emotions now?