There Are Free Lunches

Behavioral clues to a happy life.

Increasing Utility, Decreasing Subjective Experience

Gym insights about the “subjective experience” revolution.

One of the most acclaimed recent TED talks was made by someone I shall call Sir Rory Sutherland, due to his aristocratic manners and British accent. Besides the charismatic appearance and the persuasive speech of this Advertising Guru, I also believe his talk has become so popular because it describes, through an illustrative and humorous speech, a revolution that is already happening in societies today.

I shall call it the “subjective experience” revolution, and I can't describe it better than Rory did: “Engineers, medical people, scientific people, have an obsession with solving the problems of reality, when actually… once you reach a basic level of wealth in society, most problems are actually problems of perception.”

Based on this initial idea, Rory later proposes what he calls “The Sweet Spot” of human decision making. In other words, he claims that when making decisions about a social problem, we should consider not only the technological and economic dimensions of the problem, but also the psychological ones.

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The Sweet Spot would be the decision that optimizes the three. As an example, he addresses public transportation waiting times, showing that waiting six minutes for a train with a "countdown" can be more psychologically pleasant than waiting four minutes for a train without any time information. The former is also more economically viable and less technologically demanding than the latter.

Equipped with this reference frame, I started looking for examples in my everyday life where the technological and economic dimensions of The Sweet Spot were not meeting the psychological one.

The first relevant example I found was at my new gym. Having moved to a foreign country, I had to change gyms. As I went from a southern country to a northern one, and as it normally happens in most parts of the world, there was a technology increase, and I was very impressed with some of the new and upgraded technologies of my new gym. I was introduced to new equipment, different and creative services—like DVDs I could take home without charge, or stimulating drinks I could have at the gym for free. There was also a new technological device: an electronic key, where all the data from my exercising classes would be stored.

This key is a cornerstone of my new gym; we need it to enter. We also need it to start a new training session, by placing it in a device strategically located close to the personal trainers' area, so we can receive the information about our training. It connects to all the gym machines, allowing an electronic device installed in each machine to inform us how many exercise repetitions we have made. In the end, our training session information is transmitted to a central database, updating our file, which includes all the sessions we have made in the gym since we became a member.

Apparently, the people that made the decision to adopt it were convinced that this electronic key, a technological upgrade, would increase, using economic parlance, the utility I and the other users get from the gym. But I discovered that utility is what we think will happen to people if we only consider the technological and economic sides of our decisions.

Subjective experience is what really happens, when we also consider the psychological underpinnings. Although I can not be 100 percent sure, as no formal test was applied, I believe this technological device makes my overall gym experience less pleasant. It not only reduces the sense of control I have over the experience, a major determinant of how much I will enjoy it. It also introduces less pleasant peaks and end moments, the defining events of how we retrospectively remember an experience, that dramatically reduce the score with wich I will rate that experience in my memory. In other words, with the introduction of this electronic key, we can be reducing not only the quality of the gym user's experience but also the memories they will build from that experience.

When I was studying for my statistics master's degree, we had classes with a wise elder professor who used to tell us that when he started doing statistical analysis, there where no modern statistical software packages as exist today. He and his colleagues, after giving the statiscial analysis command to the computers, had to wait around two hours for the results to show up. During that time, he tolds us, they would normally use the opportunity to go to a cinema near by, where he would watch a movie premiere. He also told us that nowadays, the information processing capacity has increased so much that he can have the statistical results in seconds... so he need not go to the cinema again.

Recovering Sir Rory Sutherland's initial sentence: “Once you reach a basic level of wealth in society, most problems are actually problems of perception.” I belive the wisdom of this sentence is becoming more and more evident, as we progress in time. The path to increase human well-being on the planet Earth will depend on how much we can conciliate the technological, economic, and psychological dimensions of our future societies. We already have the best recipe and the necessary ingredients for the cake. Nevertheless, it is as if we still wanted to make an extra effort to search and add more ingredients to it, hoping to improve something that is already as good as it gets. In order to do that, we are also losing the time needed to properly execute the recipe, and to enjoy the cake, as soon as is finished.

When we understand that we actually do not need more ingredients, we will we stop searching for them, gaining enough time to make the best cake in the world and to appreciate it when comes out of the oven. We will also be able to use the strictly necessary ingredients to successfully execute the recipe. Societies, the planet, and ourselves will deeply appreciate it. And our stomachs, too.

 

Diogo Gonçalves is a Ph.D. candidate in Economic Psychology, Judgment and Decision Making at the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research at Tilburg University.

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