The hidden danger in pleasurable ideas

April 20, 2016

Do the statement below make you feel good or bad?

  • I’m smarter than the average person.
  • There are patterns that make the stock market predictable.
  • I can do better than just average returns.
  • The country where I live is going to have the best returns.
  • The companies whose products I enjoy are going to have above-average returns.

These views and ideas are likely to make us feel good about ourselves.

By Carles Rabada

Yet , they are dangerous, often in a way we don’t notice. When a statement makes us feel good, we’re far less critical of it. We want it to be true, and we pay attention to evidence that confirms it, and discount evidence that rejects it. Our more fast, emotional system 1 pre-empts our slower, more effortful rational system 2, and we get confused between feelings and reasons.

Why might an idea make use feel good?

Positive self-regard

A view might directly make us feel good because it implies positive things about ourselves. For example, that we’re above average in some sense.

Our desire for relative outperformance is one of the strongest motivations we have, and it’s worrying how easily it can make us do fundamentally stupid things.

In the worst case it can make us predisposed to think disparagingly of other groups. The easiest way to feel superior is to put others down.

It can also make us take on zero-sum games we shouldn’t. Actively timing the market, betting on beating someone at a game they are better at; these are all cases where the way to ‘win’ is to not play. Yet overconfidence makes us think our odds are better than they are.

Stability and coherence

Another reason and idea might make us feel good is that it restores order to the world, in some sense. A world in which there is more predictability or more justice is far more attractive than one in which events are random or wrongs un-righted.

Humans are naturally aggressive pattern-finders. In fact, so much so that we often see patterns where there are none, like the face on the moon or shapes in clouds. Our brain will construct patterns out of noise, much as computer algorithms do.

We want to find patterns, to understand how to predict the future. We just need to be careful that the desire doesn’t blind us to truths about how unpredictable the future actually is.

Betting on feeling good

How harmful or ‘expensive’ these views are depends on how much we stake on them. I can hold the view that I’m an above-average driver quite safely (I very rarely drive, and when I do I’m quite conservative.). If I drove frequently and aggressively, I’d be risking far more on my skill.

How much our attraction to pleasurable ideas harms us depends on both how large the stakes are, and how wrong we are. We can probably recognize the size of the stakes easier than how wrong we are, so should be more self-critical when the stakes are high.

The uncomfortable conclusion

The potentially unpleasant conclusion is that we should be suspicious and more critical of ideas or views that make us feel good. This takes more effort and willpower, and is more likely to lead to a frustrating process as we attempt to discern the truth. Having a decision process that is comfortable with, and doesn’t punish being wrong, is critical to making this work. But it’s worth it. Over time, we’re far more likely to have an accurate and useful understanding of the world if we don’t let our ideas be run by our hearts.