How to do the right thing

Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, gave an engaging talk at the South By Southwest 2006 conference entitled “How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times.” (23MB MP3 Link)

He explains why people make irrational decisions — that is, decisions that do not make economic sense. Why do so many people play the lottery? How do we over-estimate the threat of terrorism and underestimate the danger of backyard swimming pools? Some of it is due to how the news media portrays the world. But a lot of the problem is in our own minds.

As a psychologist, Gilbert has been able to conduct experiments that show how the decision-making process works. And fundamentally, he argues that the human brain is well designed for the natural world, but incapable of the kinds of statistical reasoning required in modern society.

People are notoriously bad at comparing relative risks, and of estimating chances of success or failure. We cannot even predict how much we’ll enjoy a reward, and are often disappointed in the results.

Gilbert also has some harsh words for that principle of eastern philosophy, “living in the moment”.

If you want to live in the moment, you should have been born a fruit fly. Or a toaster. One of the human brain’s most glorious and unique talents is its ability to look backward and forward across great swathes of time—to examine its own history and to imagine its own future, to engage in mental time travel. The problems that are most likely to cause the extinction of our species are due to living in the moment and letting the future take care of itself. The problem is: It doesn’t.