Your Future Has Detail

Our visions of future events don’t include a lot of detail.  In the Sept. 7 Science, Gilbert and Wilson discuss the many resulting biases: 

We feel better when we imagine going to the theater than to the dentist, but we feel better imagining either event on a sunny day than on a rainy day, or when we are well rather than ill. … When people who have missed trains in the past are asked to imagine missing a train in the future, they tend to remember their worst train-missing experience rather than their typical train-missing experience. … which leads them to overestimate how painful the next train-missing experience will be.

Similarly, when people experience an unpleasant episode that ends in brief relief – for example, submerging their arms for 90 s in a bath of ice water that is slightly warmed in the final 30 s – they tend to remember the closing moments of the experience rather than the most typical moments … which leads them to underestimate how painful the recurrence will be. It seems that everyone remembers their best day, their worst day, and their yesterday. Because unusual events and recent events are so memorable, people tend to use them when constructing simulations of future events. … Because simulations omit inessential features, people tend to predict that good events will be better and bad events will be worse than they actually turn out to be …


Participants in one study were told that in a year there would be an interesting lecture at an inconvenient location and a boring lecture at a convenient location. Because their simulations of the lecture contained the essential features (e.g., the topic) but lacked the inessential features (e.g., the location), participants predicted that they would attend the more interesting lecture. But participants who were told that the same lecture was taking place tomorrow instead of next year tended to simulate both the essential and inessential features, and thus predicted that they would attend the more convenient lecture. The fact that simulations of far-future events are especially likely to omit inessential features is one of the reasons why people so often make future commitments that they regret when the time to fulfill them arrives. …

When people imagine what their lives would be like if they won the lottery or became paraplegic, they are more likely to imagine the first day than the two-hundred-and-ninety-seventh. The problem with imagining only the early moments of an event is that hedonic reactions to events typically dissipate over time, which means that mental simulations tend to overrepresent the moments that evoke the most intense pleasure or pain. This is one of the reasons why healthy people consistently underestimate how happy they would be in various states of ill-health. …

When students at a university library were approached by a researcher and given a $1 coin, those who received an explanation for the event were less happy 20 min later than those who did not. But when students were asked to simulate the event, they predicted that they would be happier if they received an explanation. Participants in another study were more satisfied with a gift when they were not given the opportunity to exchange it because inescapability, like explanation, facilitates adaptation. And yet, participants who merely simulated receiving gifts failed to realize that they would be more satisfied with gifts that they couldn’t exchange. …

Hungry people mistakenly expect to like eating spaghetti for breakfast the next day, and sated people mistakenly expect to dislike eating it for dinner the next day. People who have just exercised mistakenly expect to enjoy drinking water the next day more than do people who are about to exercise. … people overestimate how unhappy they will be after their team loses a football game and how happy they will be after becoming wealthy.

It seems to me that intellectual commentary about the distant future suffers from similar lack of detail.  People focus on a few abstract moral or aesthetic considerations and extreme cases, and forget the vast detail that will make the difference between slightly more or less satisfying lives.  To a large extent the main things that matter about the future are how many people there are and how rich they are, so they can buy all those details that matter.

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  • michael vassar

    Robin: I really think that the last sentence of this post is what Hopefully has been complaining about, e.g. gratuitous insertion of your preferences or values into a topic where they only serve as a distraction.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    Wonderful post!

    Given people remember ‘yesterday’ along with their best and worst experiences, if you’ve just had a successful cooperative experience with someone, it seems to make sense to follow that up with another project quickly, because the person will have a positive recent memory of working with you. This possible process might explain the idea of people being ‘on a role’ or being a ‘rising star’. It might also explain, at least to a degree, victory disease.

    With individual projects, a positive recent experience might encourage more effort, and might explain, to a degree, the feeling of flow, and perhaps at an extreme, mania.

    If you’ve had a bad experience, should you immediately follow it up with at least an average experience, in order to replace your negative recent memory?

    If you wish to have an accurate view of things, should you balance your best with your worst experiences? In other words, if you have an unusually positive experience, should you seek an unusually negative experience, so that the extremes cancel each other out and the average has the most sway in your mind? Not sure if that would work, or would be wise.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Michael, I thought my last sentence was quite in context. The whole post is about misjudging values when considering the future.

  • David J. Balan

    Having George Bush as president has made me much *more* unhappy than I originally thought it would. I must have overcome bias! Yay me!!

  • Tiiba

    “Having George Bush as president has made me much *more* unhappy than I originally thought it would. I must have overcome bias! Yay me!!”

    It seems that this is a case of over-overcoming bias.

    Try again.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree with Michael about the last sentence. However, I wasn’t too offended because the claim was rather abstract and I don’t see it leading to particularly adverse policies (for example, it doesn’t recommend a policy leading to either more or fewer people, or a specific way to build or distribute wealth for those people).

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Just FYI, today’s subject was programmed before I saw what Robin had written…

    I don’t think that people’s future visualizations lack detail, so much as they are completely divorced from their extensions, being evaluated purely as neat-sounding words. Similarly, no religion has ever invented a Heaven where any sane person would want to live, if you were to visualize the day-to-day experience rather than focusing on the nice-sounding words.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Michael, I thought my last sentence was quite in context. The whole post is about misjudging values when considering the future.

    I’m sorry there Robin, but I don’t agree. The sentence is:

    To a large extent the main things that matter about the future are how many people there are and how rich they are, so they can buy all those details that matter.

    There are many assumptions there, not justified by the previous text. Just to pick on the “convenient – inconvenient” locations, our current wealth has enlarged the circle of convenient locations, but hugely expanded the circle of inconvenient locations (while nibbling away at the impossible locations). This makes some people very unhappy.

    Even the weaker statement “people don’t know now what they will like later, so we should ensure that they have the most options in future”, is not fully justified by the text: “inescapability”, for instance, was mentioned positively. And what is inescapability but a restriction of options?

    It may be that greater wealth is the most important thing to make people happy in future, but this is not justified in the post.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, I have no idea what you are talking about.

    Eliezer, I thought the “forty virgins” Heaven might be livable.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, I have no idea what you are talking about.

    I was, of course, talking about the history of summerian architecture. ^_^

    No, all I was saying, is that I don’t think the sentence
    To a large extent the main things that matter about the future are how many people there are and how rich they are, so they can buy all those details that matter
    derives from the rest of the post. I can see it is connected with the rest of the post, but its not a direct conclusion, far from it. The examples I gave were situations where greater wealth, or the equivalent “ability to purshase more and better options”, did not lead to improvement. These examples were closely connected with the quoted bit of your post, to show that your conclusion did not derive naturally from that.

  • Ric

    I agree with Stuart. The last sentence took me aback, because it seemed rather disconnected from what preceded it. I still fail to see the logical connection.

  • stuart

    72 sounds better to me. Though after eternity I guess I’d wonder what the difference was.

  • stuart

    umm… different Stuart

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robin, close your eyes and visualize trying to simultaneously handle forty virgins. Forty virgins.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The following is conversation that once occurred on IRC, from memory:

    Eliezer: I usually avoid trying to predict “What comes after the Singularity” because most scenarios are so unimaginative as to not even be interesting failures.
    X: I want to spend a million years having sex with catgirls.
    E: No you don’t.
    X: Yes I do.
    E: No you don’t. You’d get bored after two weeks.
    X: I could modify my mind so as not to get bored.
    E: Oh HELL no. This is why you should need some equivalent of a driver’s license to modify your own brain circuitry.

    *Two years later.*

    X: I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t want to spend a million years having sex with catgirls.
    E: HA! You said you wanted to have sex with catgirls for a MILLION YEARS
    E: It only took you TWO YEARS to change your mind
    E: And you DIDN’T EVEN HAVE SEX WITH ANY CATGIRLS