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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Things could be better

Mastroianni, A., & Ludwin-Peery, E. 
(2022, November 14). 


Eight studies document what may be a fundamental and universal bias in human imagination: people think things could be better. When we ask people how things could be different, they imagine how things could be better (Study 1). The bias doesn't depend on the wording of the question (Studies 2 and 3). It arises in people's everyday thoughts (Study 4). It is unrelated to people's anxiety, depression, and neuroticism (Study 5). A sample of Polish people responding in English show the same bias (Study 6), as do a sample of Chinese people responding in Mandarin (Study 7). People imagine how things could be better even though it's easier to come up with ways things could be worse (Study 8). Overall, it seems, human imagination has a bias: when people imagine how things could be, they imagine how things could be better.


Why Does Human Imagination Work Like This?

Honestly, who knows. Brains are weird, man.

When all else fails, we can always turn to natural selection: maybe this bias helped our ancestors survive. Hungry, rain-soaked hunter-gatherers imagined food in their bellies and roofs over their heads and invented agriculture and architecture. Once warm and full, they out-reproduced their brethren who were busy imagining how much hungrier and wetter they could be.

But really, this is a mystery. We may have uncovered something fundamental about how human imagination works, but it might be a long time before we understand it.

Perhaps This is Why You Can Never Be Happy

Everybody knows about the hedonic treadmill: once you’re moderately happy, it’s hard to get happier. But nobody has ever really explained why this happens. People say things like, “oh, you get used to good things,” but that’s just a description, not an explanation. Why do people get used to good things?

Now we might have an answer: people get used to good things because they’re always imagining how things could be better. So even if things get better, you might not feel better. When you live in a cramped apartment, you dream of getting a house. When you get a house, you dream of a second house. Or you dream of lower property taxes. Or a hot tub. Or two hot tubs. And so on, forever.