Friday, April 30, 2010

Surrogates Beat Imagination to Predict How Something Will Make Us Feel

I have been reading Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. This is not really about happiness, but about the many ways in which memory and imagination mislead us. If we want to know how some choice might make us feel, we are not likely to get it right if we go by either how we remember it made us feel in the past, nor how we imagine it might make us feel in the future. Instead, our best source of how something would make us feel is how it is making someone else feel in the present. We are better off, in other words, treating other people's feelings as a surrogate for what our own would be.

However, we resist relying on stranger's feelings to predict our own because they are not us. The best line in the book, I think, is this: “if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.” We tend to think ourselves more unusual than we really are - both better and worse.

Each year I find that this is a hard lesson to teach students who are trying to develop a sociological imagination. Most people are average and normal. That means most of my students are average and normal. That means I am average and normal in most things. Of course there are exceptional points. But not as many as we think. The belief that we are unusually unusual is an average and normal belief.

As I often tell Mrs. G., I am a regular guy. She and the kids deny it. That is normal.


randy said...

i'm not so sure it's quite that simple...what if, while MOST of us were indeed MOSTLY average and unremarkable MOST of the time; might we each exhibit a characteristic or two that are unusual indeed?

my father, for instance, seemed to be and in some ways was a very bland, middle-of-the-road, solid citizen...however, 7 years after his death, i really must conclude that he was a deeply strange man-in fact, almost singular in certain ways.

but maybe EVERYONE is really odd in some way.

or, from another angle, even the TRULY aberrant-whether perverse or saintly-are yet pretty 'average' in a lot of day to day ways. one really HAS to be if one is to relate all to others effectively, no?

Gruntled said...

Everyone is odd in some way. That is why even better than one surrogate would be the average of a mixed group of surrogates. Because in a mixed our group, our eccentricities cancel out the eccentricities of others.