Human Nature #19: Hedonic Adaptation

Imagine you’re on vacation in some exotic tropical location. You relax on the beach and take in the amazing view. The next day, you do the same but find it isn’t as amazing as the first day – so you add some aged scotch to the equation and like magic the feeling is back. Same thing the next day, but this time you add a cigar, or a massage, or something else to boost the experience. Each day, the same thing. That great feeling you are searching for requires more and more just to stay the same.

Everything is amazing and nobody is happy. The brilliant Louis CK bit on the subject goes something like this: “I was sitting on an airplane that had high-speed internet – the newest thing. It breaks down shortly into the flight. The guy next to me goes ‘this is bullshit’. How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.”

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as hedonic adaptation. It is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative changes in one’s life. In Daniel Kahneman’s words:

People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.

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Human Nature #5: Consistancy

Peter Bevelin, in his book Seeking Wisdom, argues that:

Once we’ve made a commitment – a promise, a choice, taken a stand, invested time, money or effort – we want to remain consistent. We want to feel that we’ve made the right decision. And the more we have invested in our behavior the harder it is to change.

For most people, there is something inherently uncomfortable about being wrong. We don’t want to look weak or lose face, so we cling to any information that supports our position. When we can’t find any, we rationalize our mistakes away. Being proven wrong doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. It just means we are a little today than we were yesterday. Mistakes are something to be learned from, not ignored. Keynes put it best when he said:

When somebody persuades me that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?

This post will explore our bias towards consistency and its many forms.

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Human Nature #4: Wishful Thinking

Christopher Booker, an English journalist and author, described wishful thinking as:

A pattern that recurs in personal lives, in politics, in history – and in storytelling. When we embark on a course of action which is unconsciously driven by wishful thinking, all may seem to go well for a time, in what may be called the “dream stage”. But because this make-believe can never be reconciled with reality, it leads to a “frustration stage” as things start to go wrong, prompting a more determined effort to keep the fantasy in being. As reality presses in, it leads to a “nightmare stage” as everything goes wrong, culminating in an “explosion into reality”, when the fantasy finally falls apart.

Edward Young, an English poet, summarized this concept more elegantly when he wrote:

All men think all men are mortal but themselves.

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Human Nature #3: Incentives

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their book Freakonomics, open with the following:

Economics is, at root, the study of incentives: how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

We all learn to respond to incentives, negative and positive, from the outset of life. If you toddle over the hot stove and touch it, you burn a finger. But if you bring home straight A’s from school, you get a new bike.

This post will explore the power of incentives in the context of psychology, public policy, business, investing, and self-interest.

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