Why We Don’t Know What We Want

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
And you leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love
Really don’t know love at all

Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell 1966.

If you look at two things up close, it is usually pretty easy to tell which one is closest. And also to tell their relative sizes, e.g., which one might fit inside the other. But if you look far in the distance, such as toward the sky or the horizon, it gets much harder to tell relative sizes or distances. While you might notice that one thing occludes another, when considering unknown things in different directions it is harder to tell relative sizes or distances.

I see similar effects also for things that are more “distant” in other ways, such as in time, social distance, or hypothetically; it also seems harder to judge relative distance when things are further away in these ways. Furthermore, it seems harder to tell of two abstract descriptions which is more abstract, but easier to tell which of two detailed things which has more detail. Thus in the sense of near-far (or construal-level) theory, it seems that we generally find it harder to compare relative distances when things are further away.

According to near-far theory, we also frame our more stable, general, and fundamental goals as more far and abstract, compared to the more near local considerations that constrain our plans. Thus this theory seems to predict that we will have more trouble comparing the relative value of our more abstract values. That is, when comparing two general persistent values, we will find it hard to say which one we value more. Thus near-far theory predicts a big puzzling human feature: we know surprisingly little about what we want. For example, we find it very hard to imaging concrete, coherent, and attractive utopias.

When we see an object from up close, and then we later see it from afar, we often remember its details from when we saw it up close. So similarly, we might learn to compare our general values by remembering examples of concrete decisions where such values were in conflict. And we do often have concrete situations where we are aware that our general values apply to those concrete cases. Such as when we are very hungry, horny, injured, or socially embarrassed. Why don’t we learn our values from those?

Here I will invoke my theory of the sacred: for some key values and things, we set our minds to try to always see them in a rather far mode, no matter how close we are to them. This enables different people in a community to bond together by seeing those sacred things in the same way, even when some of them are much closer to them than others. And this also enables a single person to better maintain a unified identity and commitments over time, even when that person sees concrete examples from different distances at different times in their life. (I thank Arnold Brooks for pointing this out in an upcoming MAM podcast.)

For example, most of us have felt strong feelings of lust, limerence, and attachment to other people at many times during our lives. So we should have plenty of data on which to base rough estimates of what exactly is “love”, and how much we value it compared to other things. But our treating love as sacred makes it harder to use that data to construct such a detailed and unified account. Even when we think about concrete examples up close, it seems hard to use those to update our general views on “love”. We still “really don’t know love at all.”

Because we really can’t see love up close and in detail. Because we treat love as sacred. And sacred things we see from afar, so we can see them together.

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