Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What are the implications of the gap between wanting and liking?

Neurological research by Kent Berridge suggests that separate brain mechanisms control wanting and liking (described here). In Daniel Nettle’s words, we can crave for something very much but take little or no pleasure in it once we have it (“Happiness”, 2005: 126).

As a former smoker I think I already understood this before I had heard that separate brain mechanisms control wanting and liking. After a while the main pleasure in smoking was the temporary release from craving.

Nettle argues that the evolutionary purpose of the wanting system is to trick us into seeking things like status and resources even though such things may not make us happier. In his view we tend to want such things because they were important to the reproductive success of our ancestors: “The things we want in life are the things the evolved mind tells us to want, and it doesn’t give a fig about our happiness”.

Nettle suggests that the wanting system “draws us to compete for promotion or a higher salary; a larger house or more material goods; an attractive partner or 2.4 children” (152). It seems to me that a lot of people might feel that such goals were worth pursuing even if they knew that they were not likely to be much happier if they managed to achieve them.

Colin Camerer has given several examples of wanting-liking gaps that more clearly challenge the conventional economic view that people make rational choices (‘Wanting, liking and learning: neuroscience and paternalism’, here). In the case of drug addiction, wanting can be created by a desire to avoid the pain of withdrawal even though drug use is not actually pleasurable. People suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders feel a strong desire to perform particular acts even though they obtain little pleasure from them. Shopaholics want to buy goods that they don’t use. People who make excessive use of their credit cards may be too strongly influenced by the wanting system, instead of weighing up the pleasure of having the goods against the cost of paying for them.

Camerer introduces the learning system into the analysis: “Learning is a process by which the wanting system comes to know what the liking system likes”. He suggests that the conventional economic view that what people like can be inferred from the choices that they make only holds in “the special case where learning has taught wanting what is liked” (109). This is the case where people have learned from past mistakes.

Camerer suggests that some gaps between wanting and liking may justify government paternalism of various kinds. However, such proposals raise many questions. Is there any reason to believe that gaps between wanting and liking are of less importance in making political decisions (voting) than in making market choices? If we vote for paternalistic government, what are the chances that we will like the kind of government that we get? Would we actually like living under a paternalistic government that relieved us of the personal challenge of dealing with gaps between what we want and what we like? Would this help us to become the kinds of people we would like to become?


Melissa G said...

Great post! I just discovered your blog today and I plan to revisit often. :)

In answer to the hypothetical question you posed at the end, I believe people are happiest when they have the freedom to live rewarding and productive lives (Along the lines of of Amartya Sen's philosophy).

So, although we tend to make poor choices when given the opportunity to do so, I think true contentment can only be achieved by having the freedom to learn from our mistakes and eventually choosing a better way.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comments Melissa.
I like Sen's views about capabilities, but I think he muddies the water by defining freedom too broadly.
I agree with your final comment. I think true happiness is about exercise of competence in the face of challenge - as Charles Murray suggested in a book written about 20 years ago (see my posts under the topic: "In pursuit of happiness and good government").

Melissa G said...

Yes, he does use a very broad definition, but I think that was done deliberately to allow for the application of his ideas across a wide range of contexts and perspectives.

If one were to narrow the focus, which aspect of freedom do you think should be emphasized? Do you believe the focus should be placed on capabilities rather than freedom?

I like the idea set forth by Murray, but it seems like many forms of happiness are unrelated to accomplishments or challenges. If I'm happy because I just watched an uplifting movie, is that not true happiness?

Winton Bates said...

My main point is that capability and liberty are distinct concepts. I would prefer that 'freedom' was used to refer solely to liberty unless qualified in some way e.g. inner freedom, freedom from hunger etc.
Re "true happiness", I have to admit that you are right. I don't have any basis to argue that competence in the face of challenge is true happiness, whereas feelings of uplift, or even sensual pleasure are not. I just got carried away in making the point that we aren't likely to be happy if government takes all the challenges out of our lives.