Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Questioning hyperopia

A roundup of the year's most interesting ideas in The New York Times Magazine at the end of 02006 included an entry on "hyperopia: an excess of farsightedness".

The piece referenced the research of two scholars at Columbia University, whose findings appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research, in an article entitled "Repenting Hyperopia" (available as a pdf here).

Whether the rationale of forgoing pleasure today (for what reasons, the study doesn't discuss) retrospectively contributes to net happiness is a very interesting question. According to these authors, it doesn't. In their analysis, which entailed quizzing subjects about a range of decisions they'd made, the guilt that can result from "myopia" (making decisions for indulgence today) tends to fade over time, whereas the regret associated with missing out due to "hyperopia" (here identified with ascetic choices, described as "virtuous") tended to endure. This, say the authors, contradicts the "classic literature on self-control" which "assumes that consumers regret yielding to hedonic temptations".

An important reason why this could be the case, it seems to me, is because the study contains nothing linking decisions made to consequences experienced. It mainly illuminates the pattern that guilt feelings don't appear to last as long as than the regrets of missed opportunity, which relates to the ways those different types of emotions play out (the former is "hot" and dissipates quickly, the latter "cool" and slow to leave). By contrast, it would be interesting to see a similar study of, say, the retrospective feelings of cakelovers whose repeated choices to eat cake either did (in one group) or did not (in another) lead to obesity and/or heart disease. Similarly, smokers whose daily habit culminated in chronic emphysema might express a bit more indulgence remorse than the one-off decisions made by the groups surveyed in the studies in question. If the incidence rates illuminating the risk associated with "myopic" behaviours (smoking/emphysema; poor diet/obesity) were evaluated against the rate and degree of regret experienced, we might expect to come away with a better sense of how serious a problem "hyperopia" really is.

Also, to bring out explicitly an important point that's implied in my remarks above, one slice of chocolate cake, or one bowl of fruit salad, is hardly grounds for getting worked up. The feelings over time that we experience about single decisions to eat some cake, attend a party, or spend money on winter break (for such is the subject matter of this research) are relatively trivial compared to repeat instances or patterns of behaviour. By and large, we might hypothesise, it's not a one-time indulgence that you'll regret, but the lifestyle. The temporal measure is only superficially about the passage of time per se, what's actually at issue is the accumulated consequences of lots of little decisions.

Turning to the macro scale now; we can see the point more clearly. Global warming is not the result of one car trip. The devastation of rainforest is not caused by eating one hamburger. But multiply these things out by decades, and millions of people, and we all have ample reason to regret those little indulgences. Let's turn it around now. Is it hyperopic not to drive to work on one day because you're concerned about global warming? How about not eating that one hamburger because of the forest?

Agonising over a these minor decisions on a one-off basis might be a symptom of hyperopia. On the other hand, deciding to ride a bicycle to work instead of drive an SUV, or deciding to become vegetarian to avoid the resource intensiveness of remaining omnivorous -- though both evince highly farsighted modes of thought, I would argue they aren't "hyperopic" in a pejorative sense.

In any case, people seem to have some psychological difficulty accepting the cumulative responsibility for incremental negative effects of their decisions; so, research that evaluated the level of their regret as it mapped onto scaled-up consequences (for their health, or that of the planet) could be very interesting. A key issue seems to be whether decision-making effort is expended according to the magnitude of the stakes in question. And that could lead to better measures of myopia and hyperopia -- the extent to which people devote too little, or too much, deliberative effort to the actual risks associated with their behaviour.

One final point, then: in light of the above it's unfortunate that in this research the term hyperopia (literally, "farsightedness") is used here to denote excessive delayed gratification, because it conflates foresightful decision-making (a genus of decision that is made with a view to its potential long-term, including cumulative, consequences) with the problem of overly zealous ascetiscism (a species of largely symbolic rationale with ideological-religious undertones). Their conclusion that "myopia may be farsighted after all" seems particularly susceptible to abuse by anyone who might like to argue that we're better off not thinking ahead, an analogous claim to the one that the market will take care of everything, so there's no need to worry about policy to prevent long-term problems emerging from our collective economic activity. I'm not disputing the research findings as such, but simply pointing out the way they're framed seems consistent with dismissing the value of thinking ahead. That conclusion again: "myopia may be farsighted after all". But surely by definition, myopia is as bad as -- albeit different from -- hyperopia?

So, this research shows that sometimes we're better off, subjectively speaking, indulging ourselves today. I have no problem with that; it certainly comports with my own experience in certain areas (e.g. spending money while travelling). To be able to take that very finding into account, enhances our capacity for looking ahead (as an avenue to choosing wisely), which is in my view an undervalued good in the world of decision-making, and ought to be thoughtfully encouraged and developed. Another term, for the paralysis that can result from thinking too far out -- taking too much long-range responsibility -- is "karma vertigo" (coined by Jaron Lanier); and that's certainly a syndrome we'd do well to avoid in thinking ahead. But I fear that farsightedness is currently in too fragile a state to be given a bad name by dint of semantic carelessness on the part of these researchers. Ironically, this swipe at hyperopia could really exacerbate (what I regard as) already myopic tendencies in society.

Perhaps the problem is simply that their analysis of future orientation in decision-making is missing a category, which is implied but not discussed; the sweet spot between the extremes of excessive farsightedness and shortsightedness: foresight.

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