Living in the Antechamber of Hope | Part B’ (NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB)

Living in the Antechamber of Hope | Part B’ (NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB)

Where the Relevant Is the Sensational

Our intuitions are not cut out for nonlinearities. Consider our life in a primitive environment where process and result are closely connected. You are thirsty; drinking brings you adequate satisfaction. Or even in a not-so-primitive environment, when you engage in building, say, a bridge or a stone house, more work will lead to more apparent results, so your mood is propped up by visible continuous feedback.

In a primitive environment, the relevant is the sensational. This applies to our knowledge. When we try to collect information about the world around us, we tend to be guided by our biology, and our attention flows effortlessly toward the sensational—not the relevant so much as the sensational. Somehow the guidance system has gone wrong in the process of our coevolution with our habitat -it was transplanted into a world in which the relevant is often boring, nonsensational.

Furthermore, we think that if, say, two variables are causally linked, then a steady input in one variable should always yield a result in the other one. Our emotional apparatus is designed for linear causality. For instance, if you study every day, you expect to learn something in proportion to your studies. If you feel that you are not going anywhere, your emotions will cause you to become demoralized. But modern reality rarely gives us the privilege of a satisfying, linear, positive progression: you may think about a problem for a year and learn nothing; then, unless you are disheartened by the emptiness of the results and give up, something will come to you in a flash.

Researchers spent some time dealing with this notion of gratification; neurology has been enlightening us about the tension between the notions of immediate rewards and delayed ones. Would you like a massage today, or two next week? Well, the news is that the logical part of our mind, that “higher” one, which distinguishes us from animals, can override our animal instinct, which asks for immediate rewards. So we are a little better than animals, after all—but perhaps not by much. And not all of the time.

The situation can get a little more tragic -the world is more nonlinear than we think, and than scientists would like to think.

With linearities, relationships between variables are clear, crisp, and constant, therefore Platonically easy to grasp in a single sentence, such as “A 10 percent increase in money in the bank corresponds to a 10 percent increase in interest income and a 5 percent increase in obsequiousness on the part of the personal banker.” If you have more money in the bank, you get more interest. Nonlinear relationships can vary; perhaps the best way to describe them is to say that they cannot be expressed verbally in a way that does justice to them. Take the relationship between pleasure and drinking water. If you are in a state of painful thirst, then a bottle of water increases your well-being significantly. More water means more pleasure. But what if I gave you a cistern of water? Clearly your well-being becomes rapidly insensitive to further quantities. As a matter of fact, if I gave you the choice between a bottle or a cistern you would prefer the bottle -so your enjoyment declines with additional quantities.

These nonlinear relationships are ubiquitous in life. Linear relationships are truly the exception; we only focus on them in classrooms and textbooks because they are easier to understand. Yesterday afternoon I tried to take a fresh look around me to catalog what I could see during my day that was linear. I could not find anything, no more than someone hunting for squares or triangles could find them in the rain forest—or, as we will see in Part Three, any more than someone looking for bell-shape randomness finding it in socioeconomic phenomena.

You play tennis every day with no improvement, then suddenly you start beating the pro.

Your child does not seem to have a learning impediment, but he does not seem to want to speak. The schoolmaster pressures you to start considering “other options,” namely therapy. You argue with her to no avail (she is supposed to be the “expert”). Then, suddenly, the child starts composing elaborate sentences, perhaps a bit too elaborate for his age group. I will repeat that linear progression, a Platonic idea, is not the norm.

Human Nature, Happiness, and Lumpy Rewards

Let me distill the main idea behind what researchers call hedonic happiness.

Making $1 million in one year, but nothing in the preceding nine, does not bring the same pleasure as having the total evenly distributed over the same period, that is, $100,000 every year for ten years in a row. The same applies to the inverse order—making a bundle the first year, then nothing for the remaining period. Somehow, your pleasure system will be saturated rather quickly, and it will not carry forward the hedonic balance like a sum on a tax return. As a matter of fact, your happiness depends far more on the number of instances of positive feelings, what psychologists call “positive affect,” than on their intensity when they hit. In other words, good news is good news first; how good matters rather little. So to have a pleasant life you should spread these small “affects” across time as evenly as possible. Plenty of mildly good news is preferable to one single lump of great news.

Sadly, it may be even worse for you to make $10 million, then lose back nine, than to making nothing at all! True, you may end up with a million (as compared to nothing), but it may be better had you got zilch. (This assumes, of course, that you care about financial rewards.)

So from a narrowly defined accounting point of view, which I may call here “hedonic calculus,” it does not pay to shoot for one large win. Mother Nature destined us to derive enjoyment from a steady flow of pleasant small, but frequent, rewards. As I said, the rewards do not have to be large, just frequent— a little bit here, a little bit there. Consider that our major satisfaction for thousands of years came in the form of food and water (and something else more private), and that while we need these steadily, we quickly reach saturation.

The problem, of course, is that we do not live in an environment where results are delivered in a steady manner—Black Swans dominate much of human history. It is unfortunate that the right strategy for our current environment may not offer internal rewards and positive feedback.

The same property in reverse applies to our unhappiness. It is better to lump all your pain into a brief period rather than have it spread out over a longer one.
But some people find it possible to transcend the asymmetry of pains and joys, escape the hedonic deficit, set themselves outside that game—and live with hope. There is some good news, as we see next.




The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Nassim Nicholas Taleb



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