Long before Hollywood gave us the Matrix, philosophers were wondering whether it would be right to choose a life of illusion if one could thereby have a more pleasurable existence. The usual way of framing this problem was to ask the reader to imagine that he or she had the opportunity to enter an 'experience machine.' If you entered this machine, you would have the experience of being a successful rock star, living a fabulous life filled with interesting friends, adoring fans, and fascinating artistic challenges... but, ultimately, it would all be an illusion. In reality, you would just be sitting in a machine somewhere having a kind of hallucination that all of these wonderful things were occurring.

The traditional view was that people would choose not to enter such a machine and that this fact showed that people care not only about having pleasant experiences but also about being in touch with reality.

The experimental philosopher Felipe De Brigard has now run an interesting series of studies challenging this traditional conclusion. He suggests that people's unwillingness to enter the experience machine might be due not so much to an interest in staying in touch with reality as to a phenomenon called the status quo bias. The basic idea here is just that people have a bias toward choosing options that allow everything to stay the same as it was. If you're outside the machine now, you might well prefer to stay outside the machine just as a way of avoiding change.

To test this hypothesis, De Brigard gave people a story that was, in essence, an inverted version of the experience machine story. People were told to imagine discovering that they were already in the experience machine. So you would be told to imagine discovering that you aren't actually an intellectually curious person reading about philosophy on a Psychology Today blog. Instead, you are actually a much more tedious individual leading a much less interesting life, but someone gave you an opportunity a number of years ago to enter an experience machine... and after you agreed, he erased all of your old memories so that you came to think that you were living the life you are leading right now. If all that turned out to be the case, would you prefer to stay in the machine, or would you want to leave it for the real world?

When De Brigard gave subjects the original experience machine story and this modified version, he obtained a surprising result. Subjects who had been given the original story said that they would prefer to remain in reality, but subjects who were given the modified version said that they wanted to stay in the machine!

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