Why don't we choose what makes us happy?
A little social psychology for you today! Chrisopher Hsee and Reid Hastie of the University of Chicago wrote a great and very readable review article about why people often make decisions that make themselves unhappy. I'm going to quote some interesting examples from the paper.
On predicting how happy future experience will make you:
[C]ollege football fans overpredicted the joy they would experience in the days following the victory of their favored team, because they failed to consider that the victory was only one of a myriad of events that would affect their future hedonic state... [A]sking fans, at the time they made predictions, to list other factors that might affect their future lives produced more accurate predictions.On being in different physical states when predicting future happiness:
[W]hen people predict immediately after dinner how much they will enjoy a delicious breakfast the next morning, they understate the pleasure. They appear to reason as though, if they are full now, they will also be full the next morning... Projection bias can lead to choices that one will regret. For example, hungry grocery shoppers purchase more foods than they need.On the difference between comparing several options with just evaluating one option:
[W]hen you shop for a plasma TV in a store, you have multiple models to compare. When you eventually use the TV you buy, you experience that model alone. Decision-makers... might pay too much attention to subtle quantitative differences, such as differences in brightness between TVs, which seem obvious [when comparing multiple sets] but make little or no difference during consumption...On whether more choices make you happier:
In reality, having more options can lead to worse experiences. For example, if employees are given a free trip to Paris, they are happy; if they are given a free trip to Hawaii, they are happy. But if they are given a choice between the two trips, they will be less happy, no matter which option they choose. Having the choice highlights the relative deficiencies in each option. People who choose Paris complain that ‘Paris does not have the ocean’, whereas people who choose Hawaii complain that ‘Hawaii does not have great museums’.Even if you have accurate predictions of how your choices affect your future happiness, sometimes people choose the wrong choice anyway:
A major cause of sub-optimal decisions is impulsivity – the choice of an immediately gratifying option at the cost of long-term happiness. Overeating, avoiding medical exams, dropping out of college, taking drugs, and squandering savings produce immediate pleasure, but can lead to long-term misery.And sometimes people resort to aphorisms instead of their own best judgements:
[I]n a study exploring the ‘don't waste’ rule, [several researchers] asked participants to imagine that they purchased both a $100 ticket for a weekend ski trip to Michigan and a $50 ticket for a weekend ski trip to Wisconsin. They later found out that the two trips were for the same weekend. They could not return either of the two tickets and had to pick one to use. Although the participants were told that the trip to Wisconsin was likely to be more enjoyable, the majority of them chose the more expensive trip to Michigan.And money, or other sorts of money-like media, makes people greedy in ways that doesn't make them happier:
[I]n an experiment to test the effects of medium, respondents were assigned to one of two conditions. In the ‘no-medium’ condition, respondents could choose between a low-effort and a high-effort task, each leading to a reward – vanilla ice cream for the low-effort task and pistachio ice cream for the high-effort task. In the ‘medium’ condition, the immediate reward was points. Performance of the low-effort task earned 60 points, which could be exchanged for the vanilla ice cream; performance of the high-effort task earned 100 points, which could be exchanged for the pistachio ice cream. The points had no other use except to obtain the specified ice cream. In the no-medium condition, most respondents chose the low-effort task and received vanilla ice cream. In the medium condition, most chose the high-effort task and received pistachio ice cream. When asked about their ice-cream preference afterwards, most preferred vanilla ice cream. This result suggests that the presence of a medium could lead decision-makers to exert more effort, but without a better outcome.They conclude by noting that many social policies, and I would note especially those preferred by free-market conservatives, assume that "people know their own preferences and that what people choose must be in their best interests... The behavioral-decision-research findings we have reviewed here cast doubt on these assumptions and, therefore, on the derived policies."