Achieving your dreams: Less likely and less important than you think

People are bad at making predictions. That’s the conclusion of two New York Times columns from the past week. One explains the pervasiveness of “optimism bias”, which leads us to consistently overestimate our chances of success in our endeavors. The other argues that we tend to underestimate our adaptability and therefore overestimate the importance of various outcomes to our well-being. And both predictive shortcomings have benefits.

On the optimism bias:

We now know that underestimating the obstacles life has in store lowers stress and anxiety, leading to better health and well-being. This is one reason optimists recover faster from illnesses and live longer. Believing a goal is attainable motivates us to get closer to our dreams.

And on adaptability:

…an assistant professor at a distinguished university…agonizes for years about whether he will be promoted. Ultimately, his department turns him down. As anticipated, he’s abjectly miserable — but only for a few months. The next year, he’s settled in a new position at a less selective university, and by all available measures is as happy as he’s ever been…

…According to Charles Darwin, the motivational structures within the human brain were forged by natural selection over millions of years. In his framework, the brain has evolved not to make us happy, but to motivate actions that help push our DNA into the next round. Much of the time, in fact, the brain accomplishes that by making us unhappy.

In other words, we are motivated by 1) believing that our odds of success are higher than they actually are and 2) because we convince ourselves that success matters more than it does. So we strive, despite the reality that our odds of success aren’t all that high, and that it doesn’t matter much in the first place.

It’s a curious puzzle. Are we suckers? It depends on how much weight you place on subjective reports of happiness.

Behavioral economists often note that while people who become physically paralyzed experience the expected emotional devastation immediately after their accidents, they generally bounce back surprisingly quickly. Within six months, many have a daily mix of moods similar to their pre-accident experience.

This finding is often interpreted to mean that becoming physically disabled isn’t as bad as most people imagine it to be. The evidence, however, strongly argues otherwise. Many paraplegics, for instance, say they’d submit to a mobility-restoring operation even if its mortality risk were 50 percent.

The point is that when misfortune befalls us, it’s not helpful to mope around endlessly. It’s far better, of course, to adapt as quickly as possible and to make the best of the new circumstances. And that’s roughly what a brain forged by the ruthless pressures of natural selection urges us to do.

One thing I wonder… Yes, our brains evolved this way. And the optimism piece even notes that those coping with depression have unusually accurate predictive capabilities. But I’d still like to know what impact an intervention would have that conveyed accurate predictions on a subject. If you go to an entrepreneur and make the case that the odds of success are quite low 1) are you able to change his predictive beliefs and 2) if so, does it impact his ability to succeed?

It seems possible based on the article that the answers are 1) likely not and 2) likely yes. But I can’t help but hope that some sort of “compatabilism” exists in this arena, where we can simultaneously hold accurate predictive beliefs, but keep them more or less separate from our hopes and motivational beliefs. The article seems to be saying this isn’t how it works. But I guess what I’m asking is how hard have we tried to test this?

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Could that be true of the nexus between motivation and prediction?

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1 Comment

  1. This was a very interesting post. I believe it is very possible for us to do this and actually I think we do it through “perspective” and “rationalization.” Interesting idea to relate these two things to our most core and deeply wired behaviors.

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