Happiness and the unknown unknowns

Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:

The economic view (that we choose what we prefer from a set of options) has an obvious appeal. Yet it doesn’t take much reflection to show how far this is from the full story. We regularly fail to choose what we claim we want (How are your New Year Resolutions looking?) We also know that children (often) and adults (surprisingly often) don’t seem to act in ways that make them happy. Everyone knows somebody who sabotages close relationships with monotonous regularity.

These problems suggest a much more sociological question: Where do these sets of options (between which we choose) come from? Even if we are rational, do we end up choosing between options that could actually make us happiest? The sub text of consumerism is that choosing the right car or the right holiday will make us happy but how many of us can really be sure we wouldn’t be happier living in a tent on a Welsh mountain snaring rabbits? Of course, we have no idea because we almost certainly know nobody who has made that choice. Our choice set is constrained not by rationality but by the social structure within which we live.

One problem with this insight is that economists believe that the best theories must be expressed in mathematics. The trouble is, it doesn’t follow that a theory isn’t true just because the mathematics are too hard to solve. The real world is complicated. Fortunately, there are alternatives, and computer simulation is a technique that combines much of the rigour of mathematics with the richness of non-mathematical theorising.edmund-armsopen-white-bg

A simulation in which agents communicate about available choices as well as their benefits supports the view that a simplistic belief in economic rationality is over optimistic. While the simulated choosers rapidly identify all relevant choices in a particular situation, they do not converge on the best choice. The reason for this is interesting. While some choosers have tried particular choices (and thus have accurate information), this accurate information is rapidly degraded as it passes through the population. (Even if I take someone more seriously because they have tried something, “I know because the friend of my friend of my friend tried it” will cut no ice at all.) Thus, as we might expect in a social setting, we cannot count on the best choices becoming dominant, even when everyone communicates and tells the truth as they see it.

Even more interestingly, when the simulation was extended to represent two groups with very different tastes (so that what made one group happy made the other unhappy), the mere fact that one group was in the majority could severely harm the wellbeing of the other group without any coercion, punishment or social disapproval. It was simply much harder for the minority group to get access to the choices that might have made them happy given the information circulating in the simulated society. What effect does it have on gay sexuality when everyone is constantly bombarded with images of heterosex? What effect does it have on women (and men come to that) when advertising images are significantly thinner than the real population? It is thus possible that the ability of certain groups to monopolise channels of communication would still be harming us, even if they were completely honest, sincere and non-directive (which is perhaps a bit too much to hope!).

Keynes famously observed that, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” New methods like simulation can challenge our preconceptions about how happiness ‘works’ and remind us of the vital social dimensions in the choices we make.

Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester and a founder member of the University’s Well-Being and Health Research Group. His research deals with decision-making, computer simulation, social networks and models of innovation and change.

He has also written for Leicester Exchanges on ‘Is Britain Broken?’: It’s not broken but the instructions are missing

Related documents

Chattoe-Brown, Edmund (2009) ‘The Social Transmission of Choice: A Simulation with Applications to Hegemonic Discourse’, Mind and Society, 8(2), December, pp. 193-207.

6 Comments

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 06/03/2011 at 11:07 | Permalink

    The mechanism where the larger groups tastes suppress those of the smaller group is interesting. You can see how it would be positive and negative; a driver for social cohesion and for repression. Remove repression too quickly and you damage social cohesion, which is where communication comes into the equation. The problems of transmission of new ideas through society are interesting. If we contrast the time taken to outlaw slavery, legalise homosexuality or abortion and contrast that with the short time it took to gain acceptance for those with HIV and AIDS because a beautiful and famous woman showed compassion. Without the princess we have to rely on soap operas to transmit new ideas.

    Is it a problem that we are no allowed to dislike social groups (except the French) any more? This ties in with Paul Richmond’s point about schadenfreude. The happy release of disapproval.

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    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    One thing the model definitely lacks is homophily, the tendency of like to stick together. If the straight community isn’t giving you good models for your sexuality then get together and make your own. I definitely plan to add this when I can.

    Liking is a tough one because preference can justify bad treatment. Do we think that people who are (perhaps quite sincerely) made ill by the thought of what homosexuals do in private should have their view allowed for or should they just “get a life?” But who is fit to decide whose preferences are “acceptable?”

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    The thought of what other people get up to in bet is too terrible to contemplate – so I don’t. I offer this advice to anyone who is incapable of minding their own business. Italian teenage girls hold hands in the street! What’s all that about? What it is all about is none of my business. Is that man kissing his father or his boy friend – not my concern other than to prefer expressions of love over expressions of the lack of it.

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    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    I agree. I think preferences about what others do are too hard to measure and too easy to “fake”. Generally, I think people who feel uncomfortable about men kissing or girls holding hands should “deal with it”.

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    blazingstar322 Reply:

    I think it is much more complicated than that, there are prejudices within one family so how can you remove those prejudices from within a nation or a region or a continent. Humans are still immature, we still have a generation that lives in the dark ages of the Spanish inquisition or the British empire these are mere examples to illustrate how the human brain is bound by an ideology that is difficult to change. It is funny when we talk about happiness as if it is a thing that happens, it doesn’t. An individual may experience happiness through the proper usage of the brain many default to drugs or alcohol in seek of happiness. What people do not understand is that it is the brain reaction to these substances which produces this effect. So how to explain this simple idea take a movie that makes you sad or happy “Usually sad drama works better because we have a better conditioning to sadness” halfway through the movie and your tears start falling….Hmmmm so did I just alter my state of reality allowing imagination overtake my reality. How did that work, did I use substances to induce a state of unconcious sadness ?. What I am trying to say is that happiness may be conditioned into the human brain making it a habit just like brushing your teeth.

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    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    You don’t remove the prejudices. You just make sure that they don’t get “counted” in public or political action. We have already done something like this in employment law. We cannot stop people being racists but we can stop them only telling their friends about jobs and discourage situations where just one person (who may be racist) gets to make a hiring decision.

  2. Patrick Crossfield
    Posted 04/03/2011 at 06:39 | Permalink

    Is there an assumption that any choice we may (or may not) make is geared solely towards seeking happiness? This is not always the case – for instance, personal giving to charitable causes may be undertaken at some personal financial cost to ourselves, and the degree of happiness generated by this act is not measurable. Indeed, it may not generate happiness at all, or self-satisfaction, or a degree of smugness – it may just be a desire to help others without any measurable gain to ourselves. Of course choices are governed by our personal circumstances, our world view and other issues. I fear that we are attempting to measure the unmeasurable, and what is the point of that?

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    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    This is a really tough one. Some people argue that all forms of behaviour can “ultimately” be reduced to self interest. I don’t agree but it is surprisingly hard to prove the matter either way. Someone who jumps into a lake to save a drowning child and then dies may die with a fantastic feeling of value or their last thought may be “drat” but we can’t tell.

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    Bronwen Edwards Reply:

    am following some of the Leicester Exchanges with some joy….your “drat” made me laugh out loud..thank you for that and your part in the L.E’s

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  3. Peter Baynham
    Posted 27/02/2011 at 12:24 | Permalink

    The problem with the government trying to make us happy, or at least facilitate the same is that not only the differing groups in society as indicated above but I suspect that happiness is constantly shifting, so what may provide happiness today can change quite rapidly tomorrow. The other key problem is that often people see happiness as relative to others rather than something intrinsic to themselves.

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    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    Second one first: The government certainly might (and has tried) to tackle inequality.

    The first one is harder because it isn’t _necessarily_ true that other allocation systems (like the market) work better than the government (or faster). There’s a naive “rule of thumb” that says that the government should get involved when markets won’t work but the debate about working markets never gets very far or very deep. (For example something that cheeses me off is being told snootily that I can only buy things like swimming trunks at the store approved time of year but I’m not going to overthrow the government for that!) The other thing is that, while I agree that happiness is quite variable, it would be a matter for research if, say, having more money made it shift around a consistently higher level (i. e. whether “noise” made it too hard to measure or attempt to change.) I suspect there are still patterns in happiness (though we may not be looking for them in ways that best shows their stability) even though there is lots of noise too.

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  4. nos
    Posted 26/02/2011 at 21:22 | Permalink

    This raises other issues how does ones decisions made on local -gossip level national -press level and international levels play out as only the local depends on direct one to one personal (and i make the assumption from people similar to you )contact and the others depend on press (bias etc ).which is the most trusted?

    Also one can take in information or reject it depending on on how uncomfortable it makes us feel and decide to not “know “something because of that discomfort -is this rejecting uncomfortable information to make us feel happier now at the expence of our future welfare an issue .How does this type of rejection operate in this age of relentless information THAT SHOULD make our decisions more informed .

    [Reply]

    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    I think the second point is _very_ important and barely tackled by existing models of decision making. (Generally, emotional and psychological issues are not well integrated into theories of decision making.)

    On the first point, I wonder if, actually, the problem is that we are now “required” to have opinions on all sorts of things we can only know from the media. There is perhaps an argument that we should conserve our opinion forming efforts for things where we actually have some solid knowledge to build on _or_ it matters that we know for some practical reason. Certainly, in voting to increase aid to country X (or send a UN task force) we should know about the situation in country X but it is an interesting question how much good our generalised concern for “the world” actually does anyone. (I hope at least it raises charitable donations!)

    The danger is that the media simply turns us into Private Eye “Bores” who just parrot the newspaper arguments that happen to support our prejudices … unless we have independent evidence it isn’t clear what else we would do … I never find that the papers give me enough raw material to compare their own arguments critically …

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    Forgetting does not seem to be problem, even for the well educated and avoiding all serious news sources has become normal behaviour. I used to think that rejecting uncomfortable information was indeed to make us feel happier but I now believe it is to stop us feeling guilty that we have not taken the difficult action we know we should take.

    Governments make us feel less guilty by ignoring us even when we stage mass demonstrations. We can say, “Well, we took action but it had no effect so why bother. If we lived in a democracy it would all be different”. This may be a particularly English trait as they have never seriously campaigned for a democratic electoral system or against West Lothian government so why would they expect to be taken notice of. If you passively accept that the government is elected by 150,000 people and that 70% of the votes cast will not even elect an MP let alone determine the government then you don’t deserve to be listened to. The mystery is why would you accept that. Perhaps because it avoids us accepting responsibility for when it all goes wrong.

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    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    This is the price we pay for living in a democracy. We have to allow that many people won’t do what we think is right (or even do anything at all). I agree about forgetting. There is an argument that everyone in the developed world should just give 70% of their gross income to charity after all … but let’s start this from the highest paid …

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    nos Reply:

    Maybe what we are looking for is to be content not happy .To live with someone who is happy all the time would be a trial but one who was content would be a learning curve .

    Content to me means that you live by your values and even if this causes you hardship you will be content that “you ” did the right thing .Doing the right thing all the time is very difficult it requires courage and conviction to try to achieve that without forcing it on others may be key .

    The opposide view may be that this is not content but smug but that is an external view not an internal feeling .

    Thing is what are the values should we hold that would to be vital to contentment

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    Bronwen Reply:

    John Macmurray, the Scottish philosopher of the personal, sets out in the1953-4 Gifford Lectures (the Self as Agent and Persons in Relation), a definition of the SELF that has the potential to radically alter the nature of many discourses (no more so than in economics). He is persuasive in his arguments about the nature of personhood….setting out a thesis that we are all created in relation to others….and that it is in action that the self primarily expresses itself…sustained and restrained by ‘the other’…i am no scholar, but have wished for some time that his ideas could find a way into the social sciences. He borrowed heavily from science (particularly the hypothetical nature of what we know) and the social sciences of his day, and it would be nice to see the borrowing reciprocated. He has been criticised for his unprecise use of language; more importantly he was deeply unfashionable in philosophical circles while he wrote. Needless to say without a substantial dialogue with his peers I’m sure he is not without his shortcomings. However, as a mere eager reader…I find him much more accessible than most philosophers (I only got to page 37 of Capital)….his essays and broadcasts were once popular e.g. Reason and Emotion…but his more technical work in the Gifford lectures is still, despite being republished in the ’90’s, largely disregarded. Sadly, to my mind, Blair got hold of Macmurray’s work and did it a misservice by using it to promote “the third way’, when the implications of M’s work go way beyond a liberal view of the world. His key ideas could provide some of what is required for us to really begin to ‘think straight’ about the big issues. ‘ All meaningful thought is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship….’ is his own summing up of what he had to offer….oh yes and he has a nice turn of phrase from time to time….Leviathan is not merely a monster, but a fabulous monster; the creature of a terrified imagination….

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  5. Paul Richmond
    Posted 24/02/2011 at 12:48 | Permalink

    Could you please clarify something? Does schadenfreude count as one of the elements of happiness?

    [Reply]

    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    In the real world, yes, in my model, not yet. While the model results are interesting, there are plenty more ways I intend to develop the ideas. However, I want to do that in tandem with real data so the model doesn’t just arbitrarily complicated without being realistic.

    [Reply]

    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    Going back to the discussion higher up. Perhaps schadenfreude is an element of happiness in the real world but should be “disallowed” as a basis for policy (so people can feel it, like discomfort with the idea of gay sex, but it won’t be “counted” in deciding what to do policywise.)

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  6. ACL
    Posted 17/02/2011 at 21:35 | Permalink

    And the thing that’s most frustrating is we know full well as we hand over the credit card, that the pile of junk we’re about to receive in return will not make us a fuller, happier person.

    [Reply]

    Edmund Chattoe-Brown Reply:

    That’s interesting. Knowing that, why do you do it? Weakness of will does not feature in economics although it is big in the real world …

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