Your mind is making you want stuff you may not actually want. Here’s why.
READING TIME: 6 MINUTES
Think of everything you’d love to have right now: I bet you could come up with a list of pretty amazing “wants,” from a year spent traveling the world to a totally new career headquartered right in the middle of paradise. But do you really want these things? Or is that your mind playing tricks on you?
It turns out our brains constantly cause us to miswant things, or to misjudge how much we will actually want them in the future.
But why is that?
Four big biases lead us astray:
#1 Our intuition often plays tricks on us
One not-so-great feature of our minds is that our intuition often turns out to be false. For example, take a look at the tables below. Can you tell which is bigger?
Even though they look different, both tabletops are exactly the same size. Feel free to double-check with a ruler or to cut out and place one image on top of the other.
What is happening here? Our visual systems are telling us that these two things are different when they are really the same. This is how many of our minds work. Often, our intuition about what’s what is simply wrong.
#2 Our minds just don't think in terms of absolutes
Our brains don’t actually see things as they are, but as they are in relation to everything else. We think in relative, not absolute, terms. And we're constantly comparing one reference point to another. To understand this better, look at the illusion below:
This is the Ebbinghaus illusion, and it reveals how differently your mind perceives each of the orange circles in the center. Which of the two orange circles do you think is larger? Most people will say it’s the one on the right. But, they are exactly the same size.
Because the grey outer circles act as a reference point, our brains can’t tell that the orange circles are actually the same size. We see them in relation to their surroundings. It’s an interesting illusion, but it also ripples out into everyday life, where we are constantly judging things in relation to everything else, messing up our ability to discern what we actually care about, and derailing our decision-making.
For instance, we’ll compare ourselves to others and then base our decisions on these faulty comparisons. Psychologists call this social comparison: the act of evaluating ourselves, our salaries, our possessions, our beauty, our abilities, or whatever else relative to other people. This relative view of the world can have a toll on both our happiness and our self-esteem.
A study by Vogel and colleagues looked at how social comparisons on Facebook affect self-esteem, testing the correlation between Facebook use and how people rated their self-esteem after consuming it. What they found was a strong correlation between Facebook consumption and negative self-esteem. They discovered that the more someone used and consumed Facebook, the lower their self-esteem.
As you can see, our minds have an annoying way of looking at the world in relative terms, and what makes it worse is that they’re terrible at picking helpful reference points! We just soak in and observe whatever we are exposed to, and our minds don’t have particularly great filters. So the more you can force those filters on, the more aware you can become, the better off you will be.
#3 Our minds are built to get used to things
Our minds misjudge what actually makes us unhappy because they quickly get used to things. You can test this again using vision: when you’re in a dark room, your eyes slowly adjust until you can make out shapes and shadows in the darkness. But when you step back into the brightness, your eyes and mind are shocked and you almost have to squint. This is because you have gotten used to the dark and almost expect it to continue being there.
This is the phenomenon of perceptual adaptation, or hedonic adaptation. It’s the process of becoming accustomed to both positive and negative stuff. That means we often falsely think that if we get something awesome, we’ll continue craving more of it when in fact that’s not the case.
The problem with ‘awesome stuff’ is that once we get something great, like a new job, more money, a new car, new house, or the partner of our dreams, we quickly get used to it. What was once awesome becomes mundane. Attaining the thing you once wanted also resets your reference point for the future, causing you to want more and better things than you already have.
Brickman and colleagues did a very famous study of lottery winners’ happiness levels one year later. They discovered that lottery winners reported happiness levels of about four out of six, which seemed pretty good, except that the control group reported levels of 3.82, which weren’t statistically different. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever get used to millions of dollars...you eventually just do, and your happiness levels look almost exactly like the rest of ours.
#4 Our minds don’t realize that we get used to things
Not only do we suffer from hedonic adaptation, but we don’t realize it’s happening when it happens! We assume that the happy things we seek out will make us happy for a long time. But realizing that this isn’t true might just make us a lot happier!
Dan Gilbert and his colleagues call this the impact bias, which is our tendency to overestimate the emotional impact of things both in terms of intensity and duration. We think their impact will be much more intense than it is, and that it will last longer than it actually does.
This error prevents us from acting in our own best interests when we feel it’s too risky or that there might be a bad outcome. We think it will affect us a lot and for a long time, but it kind of just doesn't.
Dan Gilbert and colleagues also introduce the idea of focalism: when predicting how we will feel, we tend to focus on one thing and ignore all the other stuff. But we should focus on the bigger picture instead. For example, when you think about getting that great new job, remember everything else that would get a boost: your family, your commute, your colleagues, your personal hobbies. Put an event in its full context.
This brings us to another bias that causes mispredictions, and that's what Dan Gilbert calls immune neglect. This is the idea that we are sometimes unaware of the power of what he calls our psychological immune system. What he means is that we have a tendency to adapt to and cope with negative events and are actually pretty resilient...more so than we’d like to think. We have a set of powerful tools to get ourselves out of thinking that we’re bad people or that things are really awful when bad things happen. We can rationalize them all, finding meaning in even the worst circumstances. So don’t forget how resilient you really are and don't mispredict your own potential.
As you can see, our mind has several wacky features that lead us to a swarm of miswanting. So the big question is, how do we shut these features off? Override them? For the answers to that, you’ll have to wait till next time, or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.