Friday, August 31, 2007

WWDNGH 3: Crazy mathematics

psychological and personal things are not linear.

Many properties of life related decision do not work in a simple 1+1=2 way.
The principle is - examples below - that values of the same experience vary wildly with time quantity etc. Sometimes, more is actually less. And other strange qualities of real life experiences as opposed to simple calculations.
It follows that it is pretty complicated to get the right calculations as to what, how and how much to pursue things.

No wonder that results are not always optimal.
On the contrary, it is fascinating that we manage our so convoluted life so smoothly.
Nevertheless, one may exopect that some of our "fast and frugal" intuitions that help us manage are not optimal.

Here is a short list:
Concave utilities convex ones. and ......... crazy ones.
Non-monotonic functions (i.e. more is less).
Counter-intuitive logic
fancy complexities
Wubdt curve

Concave utilities are well known to economists. The practical value of the first $1000 in a month is quite higher than the added value one gets from the second $1000 (the difference between earning $1000 and earning $2000).

First $1,000 give you basic food some commute, a cheap dwelling etc.

Second $1,000 will give you more possibilities. Better food, a better sleeping room, etc. But the difference between having theses added conveniencies and not having them, is meaningless compared to the difference between having the minimum $1,000 and having nothing being left to sleep on the street and collecting food from the garbage or othe sophicticated sources.

The generalisation of this idea says that the "utility" of money is concave, meaning that the more money you have the less value yo get form each additional dollar.

A similar idea is covexity. The opposite of oncavity. It means that he second hour of sleep missed is more damaging than the first hour, and the third hour even more.

Concave and convex curves are everywhere. the usefuleness of the second cup of icecream is (usually) less exciting than the first one. The joy from the second hour of a conversation is usually quite less exciting than the first hour. and so on.

Suffering works the same way. After an hour of staying in line you sometimes become quite numb and do not care too much about more waiting. Sometimes it is convex. After three hours in line, the additional fifteen minutes are these that bring you on the verge of being hospirtalized for mental distortions.

Traffic jams, indoctrination sessions with bosses, fatigue from prolonged courtship games, may follow convex feeling. Anger builds up. One can even predict quite accurately at which time forehead veins break up and certain acts being taken.

As a very broad rule of thumb. Positive experiences resemble somehow a concave slope, while negative experiences resemble at times a convex slope.

Non-defined or crazy curves. The example of waiting painlessly for three hours, and than feeling like the world is exmploding unless I am accepted now, illustrates that real life does not neccesarily obey symetric curves. There are crazy jumps, as if the minute no. 187 of waiting in line is the one that causes most of the suffering. In a generalized way one can still say that the expected pain from a minute is averaging somehow. But this is a way round the problem. The fact remins that things do not behave nicely etc. and that values may change quite capriciousely.

non-monotonicity. Monotonicity means that values do not go backward. That you cannot feel worse with too much icecream, or too much mates (sarcastically). It may work with money (?). Even if too mcuh money even if almost useless (the 10th million does not confer much value in real life), it may not make one worse of. But too much eating confers less and less enjoyment until eating becomes painful, stomach gets swollen and sick, not to speak on fat that accumulates on belly/bottoms/thighs.

Recent research shows that having more options may render us worse off (no mistake!). In an experiment, people offered to choose between 6 tastes of jam bought more and enjoyed the taste more than those offered 24 tastes to choose from. The examples of to many girlfreinds would clearly be intuitive. two lovers is where many would agree that more is less.
Ability to choice itself may lower satisfaction. People given the option to return a picture and replace it, felt the picture was less nice. The very option to replace, while technically meaning more, was practically less, in terms of psychological joy.

Counter intuitive logic
The emotinal side of life offers many examples. Eating really tasty icecream on an Italy trip is sure enough to be worthy. But if you remember it and your hometown icecream feels less exciting? is it worthy to lose years of icecream joy for a single cup?
I may give moe examples in a sebsequent post.

Fancy Complexity
A seemingly single decision can account ofr so much things.
How much should I charge for a hour of work? Feels a neat question. An hour = ???
How much will I enjoy this specific task?
How much energy will it take? If I will I afterward be exhausted for five hours, maybe I should charge for five.
What are the expectations of future works from this guy? Maybe this is the ticket for my next job?
Am I getting any experience form it?
Will I get more phone calls from him, making an hour into seven.... and life long commitment?
What are my alternatives for money making?
What is the marginal cost of my time now in emotional terms? is it the first hour of the day, or the 13th after a crazy day, just the hour needed to make me formally sick?

on and on it goes. I may put a real life example in a subsequent post

Point. Calculating and udnerstanding life is less simple because of the huge complexity in real life decisions.

Wundt Curve
Much of our experience goes around our arousal level. When bored it means too less arousal - which hurts. Being too excited is also painful. Our subjective joy if only arousal is the question looks like a one-sided (skewed) curve. Like this:

A classical Wubdt curve (click to enlarge)

The book "The Joyles Economy" (must read) discusses in length how this arousal business affect our life boredom etc.
The interesting property of the curve is that you feel a little better as arousal gets higher, but as ou cross the peak of the graph, your joy declines fast, reaching the suffering area with just a little too much arousal. It has much implications for how to arouse ourselves optimally (do not run too much. Beaware the suffering of an overdose), and explains the puzzlng feeling we have when from sheer joy we feel falling into a deep hole very fast amid a big exciting experience.

More pecularities
. A most things contain positive and negative sides. Knowing them, calculating them, and comparing them........ Except from the emotional effects the very calculation bear.....

Time mathematics. Difference between our value for different ages, different times in the day, etc. diufferent wakefullnes levels etc.

Strategic effects. Everything we do change our personalities, future preferences etc. etc.

In Summary
This ambigouos and complex nature of experience, explains partly why it is hard to optimize our hedonic experienece as well as other kinds of positive experiences (these maybe even more subtle and complex).

It is not clear for me whether being aware of all this would help people make their life better.

I was tempted to think that the very understanding of these curves, and of all the factors above, would itself help in doing better decisions.
I am very skeptic now.
Not sure that it is feasible to engage in too complex decisions. We are not computers.
It is costly to calculate.
We may calculate mistakenly.
We may concentrate on the math, and forgettnig other, maybe more important factors.

Research by Timothy Wilson and others shows that sometimes, being aware of our decisions and considerations deceases both, Decision quality, and actual satisfaction from the decision.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

WWDNGH 2: Constraints

(Why We Do Not Get Happier)
The amount of constraints imposed on the average person is astonishing upon inspection.

Most people are employed most of their day. This limits their choice, and even the possibilities they dare to think about.

Coming home after 9-10 working hours (including commute), can we expect much to "do" then? I suspect that after a straining work day, the very consciousness, self-control, even thinking may be a weak option.

Take sleep. There are reports that plentiful of sleep makes mood and health much better. Now, after a working day, there are few hours left for socialization, relationships, dancing etc. We are usually limited by habits of freinds. So we are faced with a very strange choice between losing sleep for the sake of getting the minimum of socializatin "fun" and self-centered activities, or give up the little left ofr ourselves for the sake fo healthy sleep.

Both options are problematic. Now the average person is practically limited to these two choices only. Whatever he chooses I cannot criticize him. He does not have a third option (ok. there are always zillion more options. I am talking on the most basic level).

Self-control. We are so limited with our ability to control ourselves. "Be disciplined" turns out to be a stupid advice many times. Social scientist Roy Baumeister shows that our capabilities for self-control are limited. after exercizing self-control we get "tired" and much weaker at it. (excersices involving self-control actually improve our self-control ability).
Limits in our ability to self-control ourselves are constraints like any other constraints. If I cannot hold myself into things I cannot. Period.

Earlier habit, opinions, and perceptions. The things we got accustomed to, control us. No matter how sharp and decisive we are. Our opinions. The questins we ask. What we consider changable and unchangable. While in a very loofty theory one do not see how these things control us, the do.

Example: Which marraige is better "arranged marriage" or "love marriage"? It is a tought call and as Cognitive/happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert says "there is little good data about this". As far as we know arranged marraige are better and at least not worse than love marraiges.
Does this imply that the average Westerner shoudl prefer arranged marraige for himself? I do not think.
Constraints 1: Living in our society, one do not have the mates to marry by "arranged marriage". You can have a wonderful marriage but no mate.
Constraints 2: Growing up here, one does not have the mental capacity to enter arranged marraige. It will feel so weired. Maybe one would not hold in the arranged marraige even if he will start it.

The principle
So life is full with constraints. and the whole bunch of constraints disable us form many things. Many things that feel on paper doable, are impractical in reality.

Much of why people do not improve their life lies in the constraints business. There are so many constraints. They are so convoluted at times. So taking hold on us, on the management of our time, on all little details that are crucial for the very execution of things in life.

Changing things with all constraints in mind maybe a direction to improve life. But it is quite tricky. I may talk more on it in a later post. When I will start about optimistic direction to imporove happiness.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

WWDNGH 1A: examples for rational decisions that do not look so

PS. I am writing this as an example, and confess for not thinking it throught too much. Take it as an illustration etc. and do not sue me for every line. Comments and criticism are welcome, as always.

I had a freind that has a legal case. There were some documents that would inccrease the probability of the closure of a lagel case hanging above her head. Effort was not that big. She did not make the effort.

I tried to persuade her for that. She refused to take care. While screaming at me not to make her crazy, she explained:

"I know myself. Realistically, I will not do it. Only value of your nagging is making me angry".

So, given the fact that she will probably not do that, she is better off hanging up my phone calls, as far that this subject is the issue.

But she still sounds irrational. But only on the surface.

There was a psychological element here. In order to persuade herself to work on the issue, she should have adopt a different outlook at reality. A different way to go about her whole life. Would her whole life be better with a more "rational" management? Not so sure.

This is what Robert Aumann calls "rule rationality" when you make a very general decision how to decide your actions, instead of deciding for every case separately. Sometimes it is more optimal to have a rule to follow. Moreover, in some cases the decision involves complicated systems (emotinal, or perception mechanisms, and others) that force oyu to have a big decision about various cases instead of a local decison every time.
In such cases, local irrationality maybe a result of a rational decision about the rule.

Other issues are also involved, such as limits of life management. I guess that there is kind of natural limit of how many things one can "care for" in a day. having too much tasks has a high cost, and even impossible for some. It is not the local cost of the very task, but the space available in our psych's "do to" list. (It is not necessarily in the number of tasks but depends of their emotional current and more).

Here, too, there was a point in the above example. "being responsible" to gather the documents, would cost much more than its net working time. Most probably, the task would hang on her mind for a week or two, costing high amounts of energy and burdening her with stress all over. It was not so cheap after all.

Clarification arising upon discussin in the comments of the earlier post.
The definition problem of rationality
I am realizing that at the edge (i.e. with reductio de absurdum), if one says he is rational but has limits, there will be no use for the term rationality.

Example: on the reason-passion axis. Saying "the guy has strong passion which hings on his ability to be rational, but given his passions as constraints he is rational" is kind of making fun of the very saying "he is rational". Everything will be rational that way.

Intuitively, however, one can draw a line somewhere and maybe perserve some meaning for "rational". So that there is a decision maker that has rationality and limits, and tries nevertheless to achieve his goals. Not sure whether I make sense or just babbling.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

WWDNGH 1: Rationality of personal decisions

(Why We Do Not Get Happier)

There is some rationality in the way people decide things in their life.
People do try to make themselves better off, ubt it is not easy.

Advice givers think that there are simple ways to make life better. Are there?
not always. what seems to be an easy improvement, is many times a trap, not easy not improvement, or unrealistic.

Most advice we think is smart is practically foolish. There are so many circumstantial differences. So many othjer things people have to care for. So many taste differences.

On balance, many decisions people make are more rational than they seem to be. Many things that we (and grandma) think

I am very much of an advice giver free of charte. I love to throw good hearteed ideas into people how to improve their lives.
Slowly but surely, I learbed how much people can be smarter than they look.
How many things I thought are easy and simple to do, are much harder and not worth the trouble.

Poeple are already trying to make themselves better off. Any "better" advice should be viewed with suspicsion.

Not that people are always rational or that irratinality is a rare exception. Just that people are more rational that it seems, at times. And many seemingly smart advice is realistically useless and even irrational to follow.

More discussion in the comments of this post.

Next post will give some examples how decisions can be smart contrary to initial impression. Then, we will go on to other reasons for WWDNGH (Why We Do Not Get Happier)

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Why do not we get happier?

intuition tells us that there are ways we can make ourselves happier.
Research tells us about various things that can make us happier.

Why do not people use it in practice?
While thinking theorizing and looking for various ways to enhance happiness, I realized that I am almost wasting my time. If no one is going to use progress in this area (i.e. advice how to get happier) what use there is to any "progress"?

So I am bothering myself in what things can be thought of that will practically benefit people (I start sounding like a saint). But first we need to....

Understand why!

why do not people make themselves happier?
do not they want it?
they cannot?
there is no way to do it?

Following posts will detail various facetes of reality that may explain parts of this puzzle.
Understanding may actually help in advancing things, if there is any value in making people happier.