George Mallory, an early 20th century mountain climber, was once asked why he climbs mountains. His famous answer was “Because it’s there.” His answer may have been snide, but it reflects an important fact: even mountain climbers don’t know why they do what they do. This is the point of one of my favorite papers, George Loewenstein’s “Because it is there: The challenge of mountaineering for utility theory.”
The title says it all. Utility theory is the standard economic theory, which is that people do things because they get some pleasure out of them. Pretty obvious, right?
Loewenstein, an economist and psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, reports the surprising results that mountain climbers generally hate mountain climbing. They won't say that if you ask them directly. But they hate each step of the way. The preparations are monotonous, the fundraising is necessarily but insipid, getting to the mountain is not half the fun but instead boring and for many mountains frustrating, and the climb itself is the grueling. Some people love to bask in the glory of success. But most of the people who are successful mountain climbers do not seem to be publicity hounds, and are often shy and publicity averse.
And it's not like a lottery ticket where a few people win the intense happiness of great accomplishments. The greatest climbers are generally the most miserable.
You might think it’s all worth it for the fresh air, the unspoiled nature, and view from the top, the moment of epiphany from the summit. But that's backpacking, not mountain climbing. Through interviews and careful studies of diaries, Loewenstein concludes that mountain climbers are miserable most of the way. Not surprising, given how often they lose fingers, toes, arms, their friends, and their lives.
So Loewenstein dispatches appealing theories like the idea that the moment of epiphany on the summit is worth all the frustrations of getting there, etc. He also argues against the idea that climbers revise the past in their memories and convince themselves they were happier than they actually were – he finds that most have a surprisingly accurate memory for how unpleasant it is. And it’s not the pleasure of accomplishment either. Sure that’s a factor, but that’s not enough to explain climbing.
But the most interesting part is that this doesn't just apply to mountain climbers. Think of people who run marathons. Think of people into extreme sports. Think of people who are workaholics. Lots and lots of people spend large amounts of time and energy on things they don't really find pleasurable. I’ve never had kids, but I hear it takes a ton of energy and it’s not fun. And yet it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.
I guess there are two ways to look at this.The standard economic approach is to ask why people are so ready to be irrational and make giant mistakes in their actions. These economists want to make people more rational by pointing out their actions make no sense. But I think it’s even more interesting to flip it around. Maybe economists have a naïve view of human motivation. We don't just seek pleasure. We often seek a more sophisticated form of satisfaction and happiness that is inaccessible to simple economic theories.