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You Don't Know What You Want

Research indicates humans are bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Photo Credit Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Photo Credit Alexi Berry, used with permission

If you read my work with even a cursory interest, you must know I make it my mission to convince people their minds cannot be trusted. In the past, I’ve focused on biases, and how unconscious biases work to protect the ego by distorting objective reality. This post takes a slightly different approach, and instead focuses on evidence that people generally think they know what they want, but in practice do not.

About a year and a half ago, I read a book about dating by Aziz Ansari. In the book, he uses research to fetter out problems and some solutions to dating.

Near the beginning of the section, “Most people stink at online dating,” he says, “While we think we know what we want, we’re often wrong. (p.96)”. When discussing online dating and profiles, he cites research done by dating sites that found, “The kind of partner people said they were looking for didn’t match up with the kind of partner they were actually interested in” (p.96).

At this point, I imagine a collective sigh, and thoughts along the lines of, “other people may not know what they want, but I do.” That is exactly my point. We all believe that. Just like most of us believe we are better than average (a statistical impossibility). The mind is designed to trust itself, but psychology time and time again proves it is unworthy of that reputation.

This is further evidenced in a recent episode of the “Hidden Brain” podcast, entitled, “Decide Already.” In this podcast, the host, Shankar Vedantam, interviews Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert regarding research demonstrating how poorly humans are at predicting their future.

Initially, the podcast focuses on ways our minds rationalize decisions, such as cognitive dissonance. My previous posts cover ways humans delude themselves already (see “The Psychology of Enlightenment," “Your Dream World," and “I’m Full of It, And So Are You," to name a few). But the podcast goes on to discuss how bad we are at predicting what will make us happy.

Dan Gilbert describes his research supporting this:

In our study, we brought students in, and we created a photography course. And we had all of them work with us for a long time learning how to do black-and-white photography.

Then, at the end of the course, we gave them two photographs that they had taken. And we said they could keep one, and we were going to keep one. Well, this was horrible for them. They wanted to keep both. They had a tough decision to make. In one group, we said, if you ever change your mind about which photograph you want, just let us know. We'll swap with you. We're going to keep this on file forever, so if you took A, and you want B, we'll swap B for A, for as long as we both shall live. Another group was told, your decision is final. Once you make this decision, the photograph that you're donating to us gets sent off to England. It'll never be seen again. (Cohen, R.

Most people, given the choice, will take more freedom, believing it will make them happier. In this case, it is the ability to switch one photograph for the other whenever one pleases. However, as the study shows (and how Barry Schwartz describes in his book / TED Talk, “The Paradox of Choice”), more freedom doesn’t equate to more happiness. The study showed:

… that people who made an irrevocable decision - one they couldn't change - were much happier with the choice they made. When you've made an irrevocable decision, you rationalize it. Once something's gone and gone forever, the mind gets to work figuring out why what it got is really better than what it lost. (Cohen, R.

Those who had more freedom were less happy, though most would think the opposite.

In another example from the podcast, Dan Gilbert asks people 18 years old and 58 years old to predict how much they’ll change in 10 years. In both cases, the groups severely underestimated how much they would change (as ascertained by asking 28- and 68-year-olds how much they’ve changed in the past 10 years).

Rick Hanson, in his book “Buddha’s Brain," makes similar assertions about our mind’s propensity to overestimate our satisfaction. He discusses how when we fulfill a desire, the satisfaction is fleeting. However, we expected that when we sought the satisfaction of this desire, we would feel satiated longer.

He asks, “Is the cookie really that tasty—especially after the third bite? Was the satisfaction of the good job review that intense or long-lasting?” (39). More than likely, it wasn’t. The point is that we are deluded by our minds much more frequently than we notice or believe.

We trust our thinking implicitly, though it doesn’t warrant that level of confidence. Often when I pose the approach of questioning thinking to my students or clients, the response is, “If I can’t trust my thinking what do I trust?”

This question may be the wrong approach. It is not as simple as not trusting your thinking all of the time. Instead, it is about creating doubt and realizing your thoughts are not as important as you believe.

This can improve your relationships, your choices (as the podcast posits), and your sense of well-being. For many, myself included, realizing in a given moment that thoughts aren’t trustworthy, or at that moment are unnecessary, can bring about peace of mind, calmness, serenity. The more it is done, the more peace in one’s life.

This isn’t easy. No one (to my knowledge, at least) is doing it all day every day. But with the realization that much thought is nonsense, inaccurate, and biased, one can give it less merit, push thoughts aside more frequently, and experience what might be a taste of nirvana.

Copyright William Berry, 2017


Ansari, A., 2015, Modern Romance, Penguin Books, N.Y., New York.

Cohen, R. (Producer), 2017 (August 21) Hidden Brain, Decide Already, Retrieved on 11/16/17 from:…

Hanson, R, 2009, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA.

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