You can be wrong about what you like, and you often are

by adamzerner 3 min read17th Dec 201821 comments


Meta: I'm not saying anything new here. There has been a lot of research on the topic, and popular books like Stumbling on Happiness have been written. Furthermore, I don't think I have explained any of this particularly well, or provided particularly enlightening examples. Nevertheless, I think these things are worth saying because a) a lot of people have an "I know what I like" attitude, and b) this attitude seems pretty harmful. Just be sure to treat this as more of an exploratory post than an authoritative one.

I think that the following attitudes are very common:

  • I'm just not one of those people who enjoys "deeper" activities like reading a novel. I like watching TV and playing video games.
  • I'm just not one of those people who likes healthy foods. You may like salads and swear by them, but I am different. I like pizza and french fries.
  • I'm just not an intellectual person. I don't enjoy learning.
  • I'm just not into that early retirement stuff. I need to maintain my current lifestyle in order to be happy.
  • I'm just not into "good" movies/music/art. I like the Top 50 stuff.

Imagine what would happen if you responded to someone who expressed one of these attitudes by saying "I think that you're wrong." Often times, the response you'll get is something along the lines of:

Who are you to tell me what I do and don't like? How can you possibly know? I'm the one who's in my own head. I know how these things make me feel.

When I think about that response, I think about optical illusions. Consider this one:

When I think about that response, I think about the following dialog:

Me: A and B are the same shade of gray.
Person: No they're not! WTF are you talking about? How can you say that they are? I can see with my eyes that they're not!

I understand the frustration. It feels like they're different shades. It feels like it is stupidly obvious that they're different shades.

And if feels like you know what you like.

But sometimes, sometimes your brain lies to you.

The image of the squares is an optical illusion. Neuroscientists and psychologists study them. And they write books like this about them.

The question of knowing what you like can be a hedonic illusion (that's what I'll decide to call it anyway). Neuroscientists and psychologists study these illusions too. And they write books like this about them.

They have found that we're actually really bad at knowing what will make us happy. At knowing what we do, and don't like.

Some quotes from The Science of Happiness:

  • “One big question was, Are beautiful people happier?” Etcoff says. “Surprisingly, the answer is no! This got me thinking about happiness and what makes people happy.”
  • His book Stumbling on Happiness became a national bestseller last summer. Its central focus is “prospection”—the ability to look into the future and discover what will make us happy. The bad news is that humans aren’t very skilled at such predictions; the good news is that we are much better than we realize at adapting to whatever life sends us.
  • The reason is that humans hold fast to a number of wrong ideas about what will make them happy. Ironically, these misconceptions may be evolutionary necessities. “Imagine a species that figured out that children don’t make you happy,” says Gilbert. “We have a word for that species: extinct.

That last one was pretty powerful, wow.

I think that the implications of this are all pretty huge. We all want to be happy. We all want to thrive. We make thousands and thousands of little decisions to this end. We decide to have fried chicken for dinner, and that having salads isn't worth the effort, despite whatever long term health benefits. We decide that video games are a nice, fun, relaxing way to decompress after work. We decide that working a corporate job is worth it because we "need the money".

All of these decisions shape our lives. If we're getting them wrong, well, then we're not doing a good job of shaping our lives.

And if we're basing these decisions off of our intuitions, according to the positive psychology research, we're probably screwing up a lot.

So then, I propose that we approach these sorts of questions with more curiosity.

The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer. The glory of glorious mystery is to be solved, after which it ceases to be mystery. Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.

And with more humility.

The eighth virtue is humility. To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans. Because this world contains many whose grasp of rationality is abysmal, beginning students of rationality win arguments and acquire an exaggerated view of their own abilities. But it is useless to be superior: Life is not graded on a curve. The best physicist in ancient Greece could not calculate the path of a falling apple. There is no guarantee that adequacy is possible given your hardest effort; therefore spare no thought for whether others are doing worse. If you compare yourself to others you will not see the biases that all humans share. To be human is to make ten thousand errors. No one in this world achieves perfection.

You can be wrong about what you like, and you often are.

(My grandpa used to read this to me all of the time when I was younger. And he still bugs me about it to this day. It's cool that I'm finally starting to understand it.)