The conceptual framework for a man's search for meaning

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Reimagining the Future

February 2nd, 2015 by dimpledbrain

I have wanted to write something about three card poker and how to ace the game since Chinese New Year is around the corner but I guess not on second thought, since we have talked about baccarat and three player mahjong previously.

Instead I want to share something on how we think we think about the future [think again], a great idea I discovered from Daniel Gilbert. In fact I would happily list it as the 7th great idea I have discovered to date.**

Previously we talked about time perspective and how our attitude towards time reveals who we are (click here for the post).

The discovery question for today’s topic is this: Are we extremely happy today because of the things we do in the past? I am not but if you are, congratulations and the rest of this post may not be meaningful to you. But if not, the next question to ask is why do we presently do things which we think will make our future selves happy?

Here’s how the future we imagine is screwing us:

(1) First, understand the shortcoming of memory (the faculty that allows us to see the past) in order to understand the shortcoming of imagination (the faculty that allows us to see the future):

  • The act of remembering is incomplete and it involves ‘filling in’ and ‘leaving out’.
  • Suppose I say recall the last spicy shrimp and spaghetti aglio olio you had. Your brain will immediately ‘fill in’ the details with big juicy prawns and freshly cut tomatoes and basil. And you’ll hold that version of spaghetti as the ‘truth’.
  • The scary part is not that we do this, but rather we do this quickly, subconsciously and assume our subjective experience as an objective representation of its true properties.
  • Just to spice things up a little, we are equally capable of filling in details with ‘experiences that did not happen to us’.

(2) When we imagine the future, our starting point is our present condition:

  • We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present (and vice versa).
  • No pun intended, but go to any wake ceremony and ask the family of the deceased how would they ‘imagine’ their future to be. Surely the world is coming to an end, it’s impossible for them to feel happy again etc etc…but in a couple of months or years, some happiness will return.
  • What this suggests is that when we imagine what our future will be like, how we feel now will be the starting point of our imagination and the future state imagined will be a stone’s throw away from this initial point. The problem is the real future will be very different from the future imagined now. (this is also one reason why predictions are always wrong).

(3) Peak end rule

  • Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow) came up with this rule (or popularized it or came up with solid evidence for it, if you really need to be that precise), i.e. we judge our experience based on the most intense (good or bad) period and the end period.
  • On a side note, now I can perfectly understand why my first boss used to say, “Always leave the department/company on a high note”.
  • Why this is bad can be illustrated this way: suppose we can feel from 1-10 (with 10 being the best). We have 5 minutes of feelings. Consider the following scenarios:
1st minute 1 1 5
2nd minute 10 1 5
3rd minute 1 1 5
4th minute 1 1 5
5th minute 1 10 5
Average happiness 2.8 2.8 5
  • According to the peak end rule, we’ll imagine that we are happier under scenario A or B although we are really happier under scenario C.
  • Now imagine that we are imagining what should we do to make ourselves happy. Will we pursue A, B or C? Scary isn’t it?

The solution is simple if only we allow ourselves to accept it – use other people’s experiences to help us predict the future. But don’t wait till too long from the time the experience lapses lest the other person starts ‘imagining’ his/her version of the experience. One may have 2 afterthoughts (a) I’m not like others – then think through the above pointers and (b) what about things which will cause some temporary setbacks now but are necessary for a better future? In short it’s called the belief-transmission game i.e. false beliefs that are super replicators because holding on to them cause us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate them. E.g. the joy of money and the joy of children. (unfortunately I don’t feel like elaborating on this now so maybe some other time).


*recommended read – Daniel Gilbert – Stumbling on Happiness

** Top 10 List (1) A Great Man is One Sentence (2) A Great Man is Also One Question (3) Cracking Life’s Code (4) The Elephant and The Rider (5) Lateral Thinking (6) How Will You Measure Your Life

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