Monday, January 16, 2012

Imagining the end of the world

According to Dan Gilbert, we're not any better off, on average, if we win the lottery than if we become paraplegic. It turns that a year or more after a life-changing event, most people revert to their old level of happiness.

It's facts like these that cause a lot of people to lose faith in the scientific method. I for one believe the evidence, and I even believe the conclusion that we humans are rotten at predicting our emotions, but if you were to force me to choose between instant wealth and losing my legs, not only would I pick wealth every time, I'd feel rather strongly about doing so. For me, the thought of never again riding a bike feels a lot like imagining the end of the world. This is one case where I can't bring my intuition to agree with reason.

An accepted theory about this phenomenon is that humans suffer from a cognitive bias called impact bias. In short, impact bias is the tendency to overestimate the importance of short-term effects while underestimating the importance of long-term ones. When I imagine losing my legs, I fixate on the immediate difficulties, such as losing my ability to bike to work or climb the stairs to my apartment, but I neglect thinking about the long-term, mundane details, such as how I'd eventually cope and that I'd still be a productive person who finds meaning in life. As I imagine them, the short-term effects are vivid, but the long-term effects aren't. Rationally, I understand all this, but emotionally I can't feel it.

There are many ways impact bias plays out around us, and given that we observe the effects of shortsightedness everyday in our own lives and in others', there are many possible topics to write about. But today I'm going to write about one that has bugged me in particular for a few years, ever since I learned about peak oil, and that's the problem of why people are so bad at predicting societal change.

As writers such as John Michael Greer point out, there's a baffling disconnect between history as it has actually happened and the future as it's popularly imagined. In short—at the risk of oversimplifying—actual history moves slowly while the future is imagined to move fast. Great peoples and civilizations rise for centuries and fall for centuries, and yet in the minds of many people living today, utopia or dystopia is just around the corner.

Creation myths and their Edens notwithstanding, we don't have any evidence of civilized life being anything but a struggle for most individuals alive at any moment—meaningful though that struggle may be. So much for utopia, despite most generations thinking utopia is within reach. As for the opposite view, the one that says we're headed for the abyss, we lack evidence for sudden, swift falls, too. Even the Mayan collapse, thought to be one of the fastest collapses, took two full human lifespans to complete from start to finish. This means if you find yourself thinking about scenarios where things fall apart—as I often do—know that you won't be alive to see the end. And you'll likely fail to identify the beginning except in hindsight.

But with every boom and bust that befalls us, sentiment swings from rosy to bleak and back again. I previously thought such wild optimisms and pessimisms mostly had to do with a refusal to deal with one's circumstances; that is, it's tempting to think big, sudden changes are on the way when the alternative is to believe in a slowly changing world where we all must wake up tomorrow, go to work, pay our bills, and own up to our burdens and mistakes as they are. Frankly, for a lot of people, the end of the world is a pleasant prospect.

However, I've changed my mind: I think our frequent failures in imagining the future have also a lot to do with impact bias and our tendency to project the near future onto the far future. Swings between bullishness and bearishness say more about our present circumstances than they do about any rational view of the future. Dramatic events capture our imaginations, and we extrapolate the current dramatic events into future ones, leaving us to struggle with picturing the mundane details. But it's those mundane details of a system keeping itself in check, with people adapting to change, that make the real world creep along at the pace it does.

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