Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
— Shakespeare's MacBeth
No Ted Talk has ever angered and disgusted me as much as Dan Gilbert's The Surprising Science of Happiness (video below). Gilbert's talk was recently featured on NPR's Ted Radio Hour. I will be quoting from the transcript below.
I was angered and disgusted by two things—
- Gilbert's Flatland interpretation of Flatland
- What the data Gilbert draws upon say about our benighted species
I will relate this to what I call "Flatland nihilism" below. This is one of the most important posts I have ever written. You might pay attention.
From the transcript—
Gilbert — Well, turns out the prefrontal cortex does lots of things, but one of the most important things it does is it is an experience simulator. Human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. This is a trick that got our species out of the trees and into the shopping mall. Now all of you have done this. I mean, you know, Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver and onion ice cream, and it's not because they whipped some up, tried it and went yuck. It's because from - without leaving your armchair, you can simulate that flavor and say, yuck, before you make it.
There is no "experience simulator" in brain in any important sense. Does not exist (but see the updated discussion in the comments). Humans do not spend their time simulating possible futures and then work toward the one they like the best. What humans actually do, in all truly important cases, is stumble blindly into the future and hope for the best driven by unconscious motives which are totally opaque to them (inaccessible to consciousness).
Simulator? Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver and onion ice cream? How about simulating 3°C of future warming? How about simulating Wall Street running amok again? Jesus wept.
Gilbert — Research that my laboratory has been doing, that economists and psychologists around the country have been doing, have revealed something really quite startling to us, something we call the impact bias, which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly, for the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are.
Here's what you need to know.
From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.
In fact, a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
GIlbert thinks he's measuring some poorly defined Flatland concept called "happiness," but what he's really measuring is adaptation to changing environments. And adaptation is really a form of filtering in the sense I use that word. And those changing environments are now mostly the result of human meddling in the natural world, or normal predatory behavior in large complex human societies.
In short, humans can get used to anything, including "winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test."
Not to mention genocides, random mass killing sprees, ongoing environment catastrophes, and Donald Trump. And it's true! Experience tells us that humans work this way. Three months later their "happiness" is totally unaffected. Unless of course you are a parent who lost a child or somebody killed your whole family. Still in the "vast majority" of cases, humans manage to "return to their baseline" or close to it in very short order (see below).
Guy Raz — So I'm, like, totally surprised that this idea that, like, just three months after some kind of traumatic experience, with just few exceptions, it has no impact on happiness. I mean, I cannot imagine somebody, you know, like, ever finding real happiness again after that.
Gilbert — That's because your imagination, like mine, like everyone else's, is extraordinarily limited...
When humans refer to their "imagination" in any context, your bullshit detector should be in the red.
It's not because people don't get over these events, and if by get over, we mean end up having happy productive lives. They do. In fact, the vast majority of people who experience any kind of tragedy or trauma will ultimately return to their baseline or very close to their baseline in what seems like relatively short order.
We don't recognize that we are as resilient a species as we turn out to be. What's interesting to me as a psychologist is, why don't we know this about ourselves?
I have long recognized that humans are "resilient" in the sense intended. And that's the fucking problem, isn't it?
Think about this. If the typical Flatland human is just fine happiness-wise 3 months after some traumatic event, then nothing those fucking humans fucking do or experience fucking matters. If there is no painful conscious consideration of long-run causes and consequences, what does it fucking matter what humans do or experience?
(Told you I'm angry and disgusted.)
That's what I call Flatland nihilism in its true evolutionary sense. Nihilism is not the province of so-called "pessimists" or "anarchists" or "hedonists" or others who take a dark or cynical view of the human condition.
Nihilistic is what humans are in the normal course of events. What makes this so much worse is that it is easy to see the evolutionary (fitness-enhancing) value of such adaptation (filtering).
If you don't want to get out of bed in the morning, you're unlikely to breed and carve out successful economic niches so you can take care of yourself and your offspring. On the other hand, Teflon humans, oblivious to human fuck-ups in the general case, simply get on with things after a short-lived period of confusion or mourning after they get the short end of the stick (i.e., get shafted, get fucked-over, etc.).
And if you're adapting, you're not learning anything. Oh, voted for Trump? He just fucked you over in some awful way? Oh, well, you'll get over it. And you do, after a while. Because nothing fucking matters, does it? This is not some evolutionary bug — it's a feature.
Shakespeare was right — impact bias, or what Gilbert calls our "psychological immune system," among so many other truly unfortunate human characteristics, guarantees almost without exception that
Life is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Here you go, another tale told by a Flatland idiot ... this strutting Harvard peacock