ingredients used to make a whole lot of ideas spring into concept
hattrick & ideas in motion
VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization
I'd like to talk to you today about the human brain, which is what we do research on at the University of California. Just think about this problem for a second. Here is a lump of flesh, about three pounds, which you can hold in the palm of your hand. But it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity, ask questions about the meaning of its own existence, about the nature of God.
And this is truly the most amazing thing in the world. It's the greatest mystery confronting human beings: How does this all come about? Well, the brain, as you know, is made up of neurons. We're looking at neurons here. There are 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain. And each neuron makes something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons in the brain. And based on this, people have calculated that the number of permutations and combinations of brain activity exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.
So, how do you go about studying the brain? One approach is to look at patients who had lesions in different part of the brain, and study changes in their behavior. This is what I spoke about in the last TED. Today I'll talk about a different approach which is to put electrodes in different parts of the brain, and actually record the activity of individual nerve cells in the brain. Sort of eavesdrop on the activity of nerve cells in the brain.
Now, one recent discovery that has been made by researchers in Italy, in Parma, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, is a group of neurons called mirror neurons, which are on the front of the brain in the frontal lobes. Now, it turns out there are neurons which are called ordinary motor command neurons in the front of the brain, which have been known for over 50 years. These neurons will fire when a person performs a specific action. For example, if I do that, and reach and grab an apple, a motor command neuron in the front of my brain will fire. If I reach out and pull an object, another neuron will fire, commanding me to pull that object. These are called motor command neurons that have been known for a long time.
But what Rizzolatti found was a subset of these neurons, maybe about 20 percent of them, will also fire when I'm looking at somebody else performing the same action. So, here is a neuron that fires when I reach and grab something, but it also fires when I watch Joe reaching and grabbing something. And this is truly astonishing. Because it's as though this neuron is adopting the other person's point of view. It's almost as though it's performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person's action.
Now, what is the significance of these mirror neurons? For one thing they must be involved in things like imitation and emulation. Because to imitate a complex act requires my brain to adopt the other person's point of view. So, this is important of imitation and emulation. Well, why is that important? Well, let's take a look at the next slide. So, how do you do imitation? Why is imitation important? Mirror neurons and imitation, emulation.
Now, let's look at culture, the phenomenon of human culture. If you go back in time about [75,000] to 100,000 years ago, let's look at human evolution, it turns out that something very important happened around 75,000 years ago. And that is, there is a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings like tool use, the use of fire, the use of shelters, and, of course, language, and the ability to read somebody else's mind and interpret that person's behavior. All of that happened relatively quickly.
Even though the human brain had achieved its present size almost three or four hundred thousand years ago, 100,000 years ago all of this happened very very quickly. And I claim that what happened was the sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system, which allowed you to emulate and imitate other people's actions. So that when there was a sudden accidental discovery by one member of the group, say the use of fire, or a particular type of tool, instead of dying out this spread rapidly, horizontally across the population, or was transmitted vertically, down the generations.
So, this made evolution suddenly Lamarckian, instead of Darwinian. Darwinian evolution is slow; it takes hundreds of thousands of years. A polar bear, to evolve a coat, will take thousands of generations, maybe 100,000 years. A human being, a child, can just watch its parent kill another polar bear, and skin it and put the skin on its body, fur on the body, and learn it in one step. What the polar bear took 100,000 years to learn, it can learn in five minutes, maybe 10 minutes. And then once it's learned this it spreads in geometric proportion across a population.
This is the basis. The imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is the basis of civilization. Now there is another kind of mirror neuron, which is involved in something quite different. And that is, there are mirror neurons, just as there are mirror neurons for action, there are mirror neurons for touch. In other words, if somebody touches me, my hand, neuron in the somatosensory cortex in the sensory region of the brain fires. But the same neuron, in some cases will fire when I simply watch another person being touched. So, it's empathizing the other person being touched.
So, most of them will fire when I'm touched in different locations. Different neurons for different locations. But a subset of them will fire even when I watch somebody else being touched in the same location. So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don't literally feel the touch. Well, that's because you've got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying "Don't worry, you're not being touched. So, empathize, by all means, with the other person, but do not actually experience the touch otherwise you'll get confused and muddled."
Okay, so there is a feedback signal that vetos the signal of the mirror neuron preventing you from consciously experiencing that touch. But if you remove the arm, you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons. (Laughter)
And this is not in some abstract metaphorical sense, all that's separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person's touch in your mind. You've dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, And that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are in fact, connected not just via Facebook, and Internet, you're actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else's consciousness.
And this is not mumbo-jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience. So, you have a patient with a phantom limb. If the arm has been removed and you have a phantom, and you watch somebody else being touched, you feel it in your phantom. Now the astonishing thing is, if you have pain in your phantom limb, you squeeze the other person's hand, massage the other person's hand, that relieves the pain in your phantom hand, almost as though the neuron were obtaining relief from merely watching somebody else being massaged.
So, here you have my last slide. For the longest time people have regarded science and humanities as being distinct. C.P. Snow spoke of the two cultures: science on the one hand, humanities on the other; never the twain shall meet. So, I'm saying the mirror neuron system underlies the interface allowing you to rethink about issues like consciousness, representation of self, what separates you from other human beings, what allows you to empathize with other human beings, and also even things like the emergence of culture and civilization, which is unique to human beings. Thank you.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow
I grew up in Europe, and World War II caught me when I was between seven and 10 years old. And I realized how few of the grown-ups that I knew were able to withstand the tragedies that the war visited on them -- how few of them could even resemble a normal, contented, satisfied, happy life once their job, their home, their security was destroyed by the war. So I became interested in understanding what contributed to a life that was worth living. And I tried, as a child, as a teenager, to read philosophy and to get involved in art and religion and many other ways that I could see as a possible answer to that question. And finally I ended up encountering psychology by chance.
Actually I was at a ski resort in Switzerland without any money to actually enjoy myself, because the snow had melted and there was -- I didn't have money to go to a movie, but I found that on the -- I read in the newspapers that there was to be a presentation by someone in a place that I'd seen in the center of Zurich, and it was about flying saucers he was going to talk. And I thought, well, since I can't go to the movies, at least I will go for free to listen to flying saucers. And the man who talked at that evening lecture was very interesting. And it -- actually, instead of talking about little green men, he talked about how the psyche of the Europeans had been traumatized by the war and now they're projecting flying saucers into the sky, kind of as a -- he talked about how the mandalas of ancient Hindu religion were kind of projected into the sky as an attempt to regain some sense of order after the chaos of war. And this seemed very interesting to me. And I started reading his books after that lecture. And that was Carl Jung, whose name or work I had no idea about.
Then I came to this country to study psychology and I started trying to understand these roots of happiness. This is a typical result that many people have presented, and there are many variations on it. But this, for instance, shows that about 30 percent of the people surveyed in the United States since 1956 say that their life is very happy. And that hasn't changed at all. Whereas the personal income, on a scale that has been held constant to accommodate for inflation, has more than doubled, almost tripled, in that period. But you find essentially the same results, namely, that after a certain basic point which corresponds more or less to just a few 1,000 dollars above the minimum poverty level, increases in material well-being don't seem to affect how happy people are. And, in fact, you can find that the lack of basic resources, material resources, contributes to unhappiness, but the increase in material resources do not increase happiness.
So my research has been focused more on -- after finding out these things that actually corresponded to my own experience, I tried to understand now, where in everyday life, in our normal experience, do we feel really happy. And to start that -- those studies about 40 years ago, I began to look at creative people -- first artists and scientists and so forth -- trying to understand what made them feel that it was worth essentially spending their life doing things for which many of them didn't expect either fame or fortune, but which made their life meaningful and worth doing.
This was one of the leading composers of American music back in the '70s. And the interview was 40 pages long. But this little excerpt is a very good summary of what he was saying during the interview. And it describes how he feels when composing is going well. And he says by describing it as an ecstatic state.
Now ecstasy in Greek meant simply to stand to the side of something. And then it became essentially an analogy for a mental state where you feel that you are not doing your ordinary everyday routines. So ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality. And it's interesting, if you think about it, how, when we think about the civilizations that we look up to as having been pinnacles of human achievement -- whether it's China, Greece, Hindu civilization, or the Mayas, or Egyptians -- what we know about them is really about their ecstasies, not about their everyday life. We know the temples they built so -- where people could come to experience a different reality. We know about the circuses, the arenas, the theaters -- these are the remains of civilizations and they are the places that people went to experience life in a more concentrated, more ordered form.
Now, this man doesn't need to go to a place like this, which is also -- this place, this arena, which is built like a Greek amphitheatre, is a place for ecstasy also. We are participating in a reality which is different from that of everyday life that we're used to. But this man doesn't need to go to there. He needs just a piece of paper where he can put down little marks, and as he does that, he can imagine sounds that had not existed before in that particular combination. So once he gets to that point of beginning to create -- like Jennifer did in her improvisation -- a new reality, that is a moment of ecstasy. He enters that different reality. Now he says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn't exist. And that sounds like a kind of a romantic exaggeration. But actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I'm saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That's why you can't hear more than two people. You can't understand more than two people talking to you.
Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man does, he doesn't have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can't feel even that he's hungry or tired. His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn't have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself. Now, I could look at my hand for two weeks, and I wouldn't feel any awe or wonder, because I can't compose.
So what is that telling you here, but in other parts of the interview is that obviously this automatic, spontaneous process that he's describing can only happen to someone who is very well-trained and who has developed technique. And it has become a kind of a truism in the study of creativity that you can't be creating anything with less than 10 years of technical knowledge immersion in a particular field. Whether it's mathematics or music -- it takes that long to be able to begin to change something in a way that it's better than what was there before. Now, when that happens, he says the music just flows out. And because all of these people I started interviewing -- this was an interview which is over 30 years old -- so many of the people described this as a spontaneous flow that I called this type of experience the "flow experience." And it happens in different realms.
For instance, a poet describes it in this form. This is by a student of mine who interviewed some of the leading writers and poets in the United States. And it describes the same effortless, spontaneous feeling that you get when you enter into this ecstatic state. This poet describes it as opening a door that floats up in the sky -- very similar description to what Albert Einstein gave as to how he imagined the forces of relativity when he was struggling with trying to understand how it worked. But it happens in other activities. For instance, this is another student of mine, Susan Jackson from Australia, who did work with some of the leading athletes in the world. And you see here in this description of an Olympic skater, the same essential description of the phenomenology of the inner state of the person. You don't think it goes automatically if you merge yourself with the music, and so forth.
It happens also, actually, in the most recent book I wrote, called "Good Business," where I interviewed some of the CEOs who had been nominated by their peers as being both very successful and very ethical, very socially responsible. You see that these people define success as something that helps others and at the same time makes you feel happy as you are working at it. And like all of these successful and responsible CEOs say, you can't have just one of these things to be successful. If you want a meaningful job and successful job -- Anita Roddick is another one of these CEOs we interviewed. She is the founder of Body Shop, the cosmetic, kind of natural cosmetic king. It's kind of a passion that comes from doing the best and having flow while you're working.
This is an interesting little quote from Masaru Ibuka, who was, at that time, starting out Sony without any money, without a product -- they didn't have a product, they didn't have anything, but they had an idea. And the idea he had was to establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart's content. I couldn't improve on this as a good example of how flow enters the workplace.
Now, when we do studies, we have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people -- from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds -- who enjoy their work. And regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There's this focus that once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity, you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other, you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once those conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.
In our studies, we represent the everyday life of people in this simple scheme. And we can measure this very precisely, actually, because we give people electronic pagers that go off 10 times a day, and whenever they go off you say what you're doing, how you feel, where you are, what you're thinking about. And two things that we measure is the amount of challenge people experience at that moment and the amount of skills that they feel they have at that moment. So for each person we can establish an average, which is the center of the diagram. That would be your mean level of challenge and skill, which will be different from that of anybody else. But you have a kind of a set point there which would be in the middle.
If we know what that set point is, we can predict fairly accurately when you will be in flow, and it will be when your challenges are higher than average and skills are higher than average. And you may be doing things very differently from other people, but for everyone that flow channel, that area there, will be when you are doing what you really like to do -- play the piano, probably, be with your best friend, perhaps work, if work is what provides flow for you. And then the other areas become less and less positive.
Arousal is still good because you are over-challenged there. Your skills are not quite as high as they should be, but you can move into flow fairly easily by just developing a little more skill. So, arousal is the area where most people learn from, because that's where they're pushed beyond their comfort zone and that to enter -- going back to flow -- then they develop higher skills. Control is also a good place to be, because there you feel comfortable, but not very excited. It's not very challenging any more. And if you want to enter flow from control, you have to increase the challenges. So those two are ideal and complementary areas from which flow is easy to go into.
The other combinations of challenge and skill become progressively less optimal. Relaxation is fine -- you still feel OK. Boredom begins to be very aversive and apathy becomes very negative -- you don't feel that you're doing anything, you don't use your skills, there's no challenge. Unfortunately, a lot of people's experience is in apathy. The largest single contributor to that experience is watching television, the next one is being in the bathroom, sitting. And then, even though sometimes watching television about seven to eight percent of the time is in flow, but that's when you choose a program you really want to watch and you get feedback from it.
So the question we are trying to address -- and I'm way over time -- is how to put more and more of everyday life in that flow channel. And that is the kind of challenge that we're trying to understand. And some of you obviously know how to do that spontaneously without any advice, but unfortunately a lot of people don't. And that's what our mandate is in a way to do. OK.
Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory
Everybody talks about happiness these days. I had somebody count the number of books with "happiness" in the title published in the last five years and they gave up after about 40, and there were many more. There is a huge wave of interest in happiness, among researchers. There is a lot of happiness coaching. Everybody would like to make people happier. But in spite of all this flood of work, there are several cognitive traps that sort of make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness.
And my talk today will be mostly about these cognitive traps. This applies to laypeople thinking about their own happiness, and it applies to scholars thinking about happiness, because it turns out we're just as messed up as anybody else is. The first of these traps is a reluctance to admit complexity. It turns out that the word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things. I think there is one particular meaning to which we might restrict it but, by and large, this is something that we'll have to give up and we'll have to adopt the more complicated view of what well-being is. The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory: basically it's between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they're both lumped in the notion of happiness. And the third is the focusing illusion, and it's the unfortunate fact that we can't think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance. I mean, this is a real cognitive trap. There's just no way of getting it right.
Now, I'd like to start with an example of somebody who had a question and answer session after one of my lectures reported a story. [unclear ...] He said he'd been listening to the symphony and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. But it hadn't. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.
What this is telling us, really, is that we might be thinking of ourselves and of other people in terms of two selves. There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It's the experiencing self that the doctor approaches -- you know, when the doctor asks, "Does it hurt now when I touch you here?" And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it's the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, "How have you been feeling lately?" or "How was your trip to Albania?" or something like that. Those are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self and getting confused between them is part of the mess of the notion of happiness.
Now, the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memories -- it starts immediately. We don't only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story. And let me begin with one example. This is an old study. Those are actual patients undergoing a painful procedure. I won't go into detail. It's no longer painful these days, but it was painful when this study was run in the 1990s. They were asked to report on their pain every 60 seconds. And here are two patients. Those are their recordings. And you are asked, "Who of them suffered more?" And it's a very easy question. Clearly, Patient B suffered more. His colonoscopy was longer, and every minute of pain that Patient A had Patient B had and more.
But now there is another question: "How much did these patients think they suffered?" And here is a surprise: And the surprise is that Patient A had a much worse memory of the colonoscopy than Patient B. The stories of the colonoscopies were different and because a very critical part of the story is how it ends -- and neither of these stories is very inspiring or great -- but one of them is this distinct ... (Laughter) but one of them is distinctly worse than the other. And the one that is worse was the one where pain was at its peak at the very end. It's a bad story. How do we know that? Because we asked these people after their colonoscopy, and much later, too, "How bad was the whole thing, in total?" and it was much worse for A than for B in memory.
Now this is a direct conflict between the experiencing self and the remembering self. From the point of view of the experiencing self, clearly, B had a worse time. Now, what you could do with patient A, and we actually ran clinical experiments, and it has been done, and it does work, you could actually extend the colonoscopy of Patient A by just keeping the tube in without jiggling it too much. That will cause the patient to suffer, but just a little and much less than before. And if you do that for a couple of minutes, you have made the experiencing self of Patient A worse off, and you have the remembering self of Patient A and lot better off, because now you have endowed Patient A with a better story about his experience. What defines a story? And that is true of the stories that memory delivers for us, and it's also true of the stories that we make up. What defines a story are changes, significant moments and endings. Endings are very, very important and, in this case, the ending dominated.
Now, the experiencing self lives its life continuously. It has moments of experience, one after the other. And you ask: What happens to these moments? And the answer is really straightforward. They are lost forever. I mean, most of the moments of our life -- and I calculated -- you know, the psychological present is said to be about three seconds long. Which means that, you know, in a life there, are about 600 million of them. In a month, there are about 600,000. Most of them don't leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, some how you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life. It's the finite resource that we're spending while we're on this earth. And how to spend it, would seem to be relevant, but that is not the story that the remembering self keeps for us.
So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they're really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two week vacation is twice as good as the one week vacation. That's not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two week vacation is barely better than the one week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. And in this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self. Time has very little impact on this story.
Now, the remembering self does more than remember and tell stories. It is actually the one that makes decisions because, if you have a patient who has had, say, two colonoscopies with two different surgeons and is deciding which of them to choose, then the one that chooses is the one that has the memory that is less bad, and that's the surgeon that will be chosen. The experiencing self has no voice in this choice. We actually don't choose between experiences. we choose between memories of experiences. And, even when we think about the future, we don't think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this, you know, as a tyranny of the remembering self, and you can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn't need.
I have that sense that when we go on vacations this is very frequently the case, that is, we go on vacations, to a very large extent, in the service of our remembering self. And this is a bit hard to justify I think. I mean, how much do we consume our memories? That is one of the explanations that is given for the dominance of the remembering self. And when I think about that, I think about a vacation we had in Antarctica a few years ago, which was clearly the best vacation I've ever had, and I think of it relatively often, relative to how much I think of other vacations. And I probably have consumed my memories of that three week trip, I would say, for about 25 minutes in the last four years. Now, if I had ever opened the folder with the 600 pictures in it, I would have spent another hour. Now, that is three weeks, and that is at most an hour and a half. There seems to be a discrepancy. Now, I may be a bit extreme, you know, in how little appetite I have for consuming memories, but even if you do more of this, there is a genuine question. Why do we put so much weight on memory relative to the weight that we put on experiences?
So I want you to think about a thought experiment. Imagine that your next vacation you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed, and you'll get an amnesic drug so that you won't remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation? (Laughter) And if you would choose a different vacation, there is a conflict between your two selves, and you need to think about how to adjudicate that conflict, and it's actually not at all obvious because, if you think in terms of time, then you get one answer. And if you think in terms of memories, you might get another answer. Why do we pick the vacations we do, is a problem that confronts us with a choice between the two selves.
Now, the two selves bring up two notions of happiness. There are really two concepts of happiness that we can apply, one per self. So you can ask: How happy is the experiencing self? And then you would ask: How happy are the moments in the experiencing self's life? And they're all -- happiness for moments is a fairly complicated process. What are the emotions that can be measured? And, by the way, now we are capable of getting a pretty good idea of the happiness of the experiencing self over time. If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self, it's a completely different thing. This is not about how happily a person lives. It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is when that person thinks about her life. Very different notion. Anyone who doesn't distinguish those notions, is going to mess up the study of happiness, and I belong to a crowd of students of well-being, who've been messing up the study of happiness for a long time in precisely this way.
The distinction between the happiness of the experiencing self and the satisfaction of the remembering self has been recognized in recent years, and there are now efforts to measure the two separately, the Gallup Organization has a world poll with more that half a million people have been asked questions about what they thing of their life and about their experiences. And there have been other efforts along those lines. So in recent years, we have begun to learn about the happiness of the two selves. And the main lesson I think that we have learned, is they are really different. You can know how satisfied somebody is with their life, and that really doesn't teach you much about how happily they're living their life, and vice versa. Just to give you a sense of the correlation, the correlation is about .5. What that means is if you met somebody, and you were told, oh his father is six feet tall, how much would you know about his height? Well, you would know something about his height, but there's a lot of uncertainty. You have that much uncertainty. If I tell you that somebody ranked their life eight on a scale of ten, you have a lot of uncertainty about how happy they are with their experiencing self. So the correlation is low.
We know something about what controls satisfaction of the happiness self. We know that money is very important, goals are very important. We know that happiness is mainly being satisfied with people that we like, spending time with people that we like. There are other pleasures, but this is dominant. So if you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves, you are going to end up doing very different things. The bottom line of what I've said here is that we really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being. It is a completely different notion.
Now, very quickly, another reason we cannot think straight about happiness is that we do not attend to the same things when we think about life, and we actually live. So, if you ask the simple question of how happy people are in California, you are not going to get to the correct answer. When you ask that question, you think people must be happier in California, if, say, you live in Ohio. (Laughter) And what happens is when you think about living in California, you are thinking of the contrast between California and other places, and that contrast, say, is in climate. Well, it turns out that climate is not very important to the experiencing self and is not even very important to the reflective self that decides how happy people are. But now, because the reflective self is in charge, you may end up -- some people may end up moving to California. And it's sort of interesting to trace what is going to happen to people who move to California in the hope of getting happier. Well, their experiencing self is not going to get happier. We know that. But one thing will happen. They will think they are happier, because, when they think about it, they'll be reminded of how horrible the weather was in Ohio. And they will feel they made the right decision.
It is very difficult to think straight about well-being, and I hope I have given you a sense of how difficult it is.
Chris Anderson: Thank you. I've got a question for you. Thank you so much. Now, when we were on the phone a few weeks ago, you mentioned to me that there was quite an interesting result came out of that Gallup survey. Is that something you can share since you do have a few moments left now?
Daniel Kahneman: Sure. I think the most interesting result that we found in the Gallup survey is a number, which we absolutely did not expect to find. We found that with respect to the happiness of the experiencing self. When we looked at how feelings vary with income. And it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans, and that's a very large sample of Americans, like 600,000, but it's a large representative sample, below an income of 600,000 dollars a year...
DK: 60,000. (Laughter) 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I've rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery, and we can measure that misery very, very clearly. In terms of the other self, the remembering self, you get a different story. The more money you earn the more satisfied you are. That does not hold for emotions.
CA: But Danny, the whole American endeavor is about life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. If people took seriously that finding, I mean, it seems to turn upside down everything we believe about, say for example, taxation policy and so forth. Is there any chance that politicians, that the country generally, would take a finding like that seriously and run public policy based on it?
DK: You know I think that there is recognition of the role of happiness research in public policy. The recognition is going to be slow in the United States, no question about that, but in the UK, it is happening, and in other countries it is happening. People are recognizing that they ought to be thinking of happiness when they think of public policy. It's going to take awhile, and people are going to debate whether they want to study experience happiness, or whether they want to study life evaluation, so we need to have that debate fairly soon, How to enhance happiness, goes very different ways depending on how you think, and whether you think of the remembering self or you think of the experiencing self. This is going to influence policy, I think, in years to come. In the United States, efforts are being made to measure the experience happiness of the population. This is going to be, I think, within the next decade or two, part of national statistics.
CA: Well, it seems to me, this issue will, or at least should be, the most interesting policy discussion to track over the next few years. Thank you so much for inventing behavioral economics. Thank you Danny Kahneman.
What I wish I wrote
The thesis my thesis adviser wouldn't let me do in grad school was on how Americans were beginning to believe their myths; how we were deifying our great inventors instead of learning how they actually did it. Productive innovation is the result of learning all you can, parking the seat of your pants in a chair and mastering the intricate and subtle details, doing experiments, keeping records and constantly asking what step to take next to achieve the desired goal. It typically means developing a wide-ranging knowledge.
Those who fail usually lack the self-discipline to stay focused. You make it sound like the keys to success in innovation are paisleys, long hair, incense, sandals and the right groove.
Author: Jumper from South Carolina
On the limitations of empirical studies
Here's an excerpt from a blog entry by James Kwak, co-author with Simon Johnson at the Baseline Scenario:
I finally got around to listening to Planet Money’s interview with Russ Roberts from December. Russ Roberts and I are pretty sure to disagree on almost any actual policy question. But what I liked about his interview was that he basically admitted that policy questions cannot be settled by looking at the empirical studies. On whether the minimum wage increases or decreases employment for example, he says that he can poke holes in the studies whose conclusions he doesn’t agree with, but other people can poke holes in the studies he agrees with. In Roberts’s view, people’s policy positions are determined by their prior normative commitments.
I don’t completely agree. I don’t think that these questions, like the one about the minimum wage, are inherently unanswerable in the sense that the answer does not exist. But I agree that empirical studies are unlikely to get to the truth, particularly on a politically charged question, because there are so many ways to fudge an empirical study. As one of my professors said, there are a million ways you can screw up a study, and only one way to do it right. But I agree with the general sentiment. We are living in an age of numbers, where people think that statistics can answer any question. Statistics can answer any question, but they can answer it in multiple ways depending on who is sitting at the keyboard.
The drama of most consultants
Usually, a consultant can only be as smart/[descriptor] as his dumbest/[opposite-descriptor] paying client.