Tag Archives: human condition

The hedonic treadmill exists even for basic necessities

Does people’s life satisfaction adapt to material improvements? In a recent paper (gated), Galiani, Gertler and Undurraga find that it does, even in a case of very poor people receiving a really basic service (housing). In a large-scale experiment, some poor households in El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay were randomly selected to receive a ready-made small house. Receiving such housing increased the share of households reporting to be “satsfied” or “very satisfied” with the quality of their life by around around 40 %, from 0.53 to 0.73, thus confirming that it was something these households really needed. What about the effect in the long term? Eight months later, more than half of the gain had disappeared, highly consistent with the hedonic treadmill hypothesis.

“What’s The Point” podcast

I have started listening to a new podcast called What’s The Point, produced by Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight team. The show “is a short weekly conversation (tag line: “Big Data. Small Interviews.”) that highlights data’s growing influence and brings in the people who are using it in surprising ways.” I have enjoyed the first few episodes and will continue to listen to the show on a regular basis. In the second episode, the guest was astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and when talking about his multiple interests and obligations, he said something I liked very much about having too much to do: “When something is out of balance you can get quite innovative in your attempts to resolve that fact.” Anyway, the podcast is recommended.

The surprising origin of civilization according to Freud

Kjetil Simonsen made me aware of Sigmund Freud’s highly original view of the origin of (human) civilization, from Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Freud starts off conventionally enough:

If we go back for enough, we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement, 1 […] (p. 37)

However, the real meat is in the accompanying footnote:

1 Psycho-analytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture—a fantastic-sounding one— about the origin of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about’ the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot, upwards. Putting out fire by micturating — a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back – was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire. It is remarkable, too, how regularly analytic experience testifies to the connection between ambition, fire and urethral erotism. (p. 37)

When man stopped (homo-erotically) peeing on fire, civilization rose.

How Americans Die

Via Andrew Gelman, a great slideshow about “How Americans Die” from Bloomberg. We see the development of American mortality 1968-2010 broken down in several different ways. It was new to me how important AIDS was as a mortality factor on the population level between the mid-80’s until the mid-90’s and that it affected black men the most. Also, “suicide […] has recently become the number one violent cause of death.” Go have a look.

Bloomberg 2014 How Do Americans Die

“[…] by pushing his jam always forward into the future, [the “purposive” man] strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality”

John M. Keynes thus criticized an excessive preoccupation with the future in his essay Economic possibilities for our grandchildren (1930). I was a bit puzzled by this, and the full quote does not really help:

The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Helpfully, there is a Wikipedia page on the “jam tomorrow“.  It turns out that the jam reference comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), in which the White Queen offers Alice to work in exchange for jam that she (Alice) will always receive tomorrow, i.e. never. Back to Keynes: Such forward-looking behavior is helping to solve the economic problem, but as soon as that is done (it will take at least 100 years), we can stop pushing the jam into the future.

(And presumably start eating it, though Alice says she does not care for jam, but perhaps that is another story.)

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The benefits of a surveillance state

Surveillance gets a bad rap these days, but here is another perspective, stated clearly for once: Stuart Armstrong writing in the Aeon magazine spells out what the benefits of total surveillance might be.  Summary: less crime, fewer resources spent on police and military, prevent pandemics and terrorists, help disaster response, provide data for research, practical applications, more global trust. (And he duly notes: “these potential benefits aren’t the whole story on mass surveillance.”)

Hell is unhappiness

Religious beliefs have been associated with happiness, but psychologists Shariff and Aknin (PLOS ONE) take a more disaggregated look:

They construct life satisfaction and daily affect measures from the Gallup World Poll and put it together with country-level beliefs in Heaven and Hell from the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey. Believing in Heaven is associated with greater well-being, believing in Hell with lower. This cross-national comparison shows the relationship between aggregate measures of daily well-being and “the percentage of population that believes in Heaven minus percentage that believes in Hell”:

There are also some regression results controlling for some things.

What is the causality? Shariff and Aknin also conduct an experiment on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: People primed to think of Hell by writing a short paragraph about it reported lower happiness and positive emotions and higher sadness, fear and negative emotions afterwards compared to people writing about Heaven or an unrelated topic. The Heaven group or the control group did not differ from each other.

H/t: Kevin Lewis