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Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer's Sausage?
Yet in just one of those blinks, the human brain nearly tripled in size, due primarily to the dramatic expansion of a special structure that allows modern people to do things that their ancestors couldn't even imagine.
Like imagining. Because we have a large frontal lobe, we can close our eyes, simulate our actions and watch their consequences unfold on the little theater screens in our minds. This is why we don't actually have to use a waffle iron in the bathtub, have sex with our siblings or chew thumbtacks to know that each of these is a stunningly bad idea. Our uniquely human ability to simulate future experiences is one of the talents that got our species out of Africa and into Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ).
But like eyesight and hindsight, foresight can be blind. And in the last decade, psychologists and economists have discovered that people make systematic errors when predicting their future satisfactions.
Consider a simple example: In a recent study at Harvard University, volunteers were seated at a table with a plate of potato chips directly in front of them and another food tucked away unobtrusively in the corner of the room. In one condition of the experiment, the other food was an appetizing gourmet chocolate bar, and in another condition it was an unappetizing tin of sardines. Some of the volunteers were asked to imagine eating the potato chips in the future and to predict how much they would like them.
The study found that the food in the far corner of the room had a profound impact on these predictions. Specifically, volunteers who imagined eating potato chips in the presence of chocolate predicted they would enjoy those chips less than did volunteers who imagined eating chips in the presence of sardines.
But when volunteers were asked to eat the chips in the presence of these other foods and to report how much they liked them, those who ate chips in the presence of chocolate enjoyed them every bit as much as did those who ate them in the presence of sardines.
Why? Because when volunteers were merely thinking about chips, they naturally compared them with the sardines or the chocolate. But when they actually had a big mouthful of greasy, crunchy, salty, fried potatoes, the powerful gustatory experience caused all thoughts of chocolate or sardines to evaporate.
What volunteers had failed to realize was that the comparisons they were making when the chips were in their heads were not the comparisons they would make when the chips were in their mouths.
If the failure to anticipate future comparisons was limited to snack foods, then Frito-Lay would care, and the rest of us would yawn. But in fact, this failure can bedevil our most basic economic decisions.
For example, would you be happier working for Firm A, which will pay you $94,000 per year and pay others who do the same work $100,000, or for Firm B, which will pay you $89,000 and pay others $83,000?
The obvious answer is Firm A. After all, your bank account contains dollars that you can spend on groceries and vacations, and those dollars don't care what the guy in the next cubicle earns.
Alas, taking the job with the better salary may maximize your wealth, but it will in all likelihood minimize your happiness. Why? Because right now you are comparing one job with the other, and the job with the larger salary is appealing by comparison.
But it won't take long for the nature of that comparison to change. Once you actually take the job at Firm A, you'll almost surely stop comparing your salary with the salary you might have earned at Firm B. And just as surely, you'll start comparing your salary with the salary of the guy in the next cubicle.
Our real estate brokers advise us to buy the most modest house in a neighborhood of grand homes rather than the grandest house in a neighborhood of modest homes. And that may very well be the right way to maximize value. But it is the wrong way to maximize happiness, because every time you drive down your magnificent block and pull into your extremely short driveway, you'll wince.
As economist Andrew Oswald notes, "Happiness levels depend inversely on the earning levels of a person's neighbors. Prosperity next door makes you dissatisfied. It's relative income that matters: When everyone in a society gets wealthier, average well-being stays the same."
Unlike vacations, groceries and real estate, happiness is bought with relative dollars.
The comparisons we make when we think about the future are often not the comparisons we make when we get there. Our failure to anticipate that we will compare ourselves with those around us is just one example of this fact.
And there are others. For instance, you won't be surprised to learn that when people go shopping--say, for a bottle of wine--they're likely to spend more money if the wines at the liquor store range from $10 to $100 per bottle than if they range from $10 to $30. Why? Because shoppers naturally compare the wines they see with the other wines they see and then buy bottles that are toward the middle of the range. One reason why this is a problem is that unscrupulous retailers can extort a few extra dollars from their customers by extending the range--for example, by keeping a few pricey bottles on the shelf with no intention of selling them.
But the more important reason why this is a problem is that when the person sits down to drink the wine he purchased, he'll compare it with the Diet Pepsi he was just sipping, with the wine he drank last Saturday or with some other beverage he remembers. The odds that he'll take a sip, let it wash across his palate and then compare it with the bottles he didn't actually buy are minuscule.
Similarly, when a shopper goes to the store and listens to different sets of stereo speakers, she may notice that the ugly, boxy speakers have a less boomy bass and a roomier midrange than the small, sleek ones do. Alas, within a few days of installing the ugly speakers in the middle of her living room, she'll no longer be comparing them with the sleeker speakers whose acoustic properties she can no longer quite remember.
But every morning for the rest of her natural life, she'll wake up, walk down the stairs and find herself staring at two hulking leviathans. These she'll continually compare with the rest of her otherwise sleek (and now spoiled) decor.
So what's a chip-eating, job-taking, house-shopping, wine-drinking, speaker-buying person to do? More than 2,000 years ago, Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu wrote, "If we say that a thing is great or small by its own standard of great or small, then there is nothing in all of creation which is not great, nothing which is not small."
In other words, making comparisons is inevitable, and you'll never kick the habit. But making comparisons isn't the problem. The problem is that, because we don't realize we're making comparisons, we don't realize that the comparisons we're making now are not the comparisons we'll be making later.
The solution is to force ourselves to consider this fact--to ask ourselves how much the future pleasures that our frontal lobes are simulating rely on comparisons that we won't be making when the future actually happens.
This doesn't seem like a particularly clever solution, until you compare it with all the others.
Daniel Gilbert is the Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University. His forthcoming book, Stumbling on Happiness, will be published in May 2006.
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