Category Archives: Happiness

Utopia, Dystopia, Uncertainty and Our Psychological Selves

I have just finished reading Dylan Evans’ book “The Utopia Experiment“, which chronicles the author’s doomed attempt to found a self-sufficient community in rural Scotland as a post-collapse prototype for others to learn from.

It is always interesting to find a hidden back story about one of the authors who sit on my book shelf–and boy does Evans have a bizarre back story. Evans is an LSE-trained philosopher and scholar of risk, robotics, artificial intelligence and evolutionary psychology (after many a wayward turn).  I already own his book “Risk Intelligence”, which deals with many of the issues I confront in this blog, particularly ‘decision-making under uncertainty’. Unknown to me, Evans’ interest in risk, combined with his own personal demons, had previously led to a decision to opt out of conventional society, which in turn led to a complete nervous breakdown.

Evans displays a compulsive personality: he pours himself into a particular endeavour for a year or two, then recoils from any further long-term commitment. To launch ‘Utopia’, he sacrifices everything: his house, his job, his relationships. To justify this, ‘Utopia’ becomes more than a mere experiment but rather a lifeboat being made ready for the collapse of civilisation. In a conversation with Oxford academic and scholar of existential risk Nick Bostrom, he is asked this question:

How likely do you think it is that something like the imaginary scenario you are acting out in Scotland might really come to pass in the next ten years?

Evans replies:

I thought a bit longer, and finally declared that I thought that the chance of such a thing happening within the next ten years was about 50 per cent. Nick looked shocked. Not even the most pessimistic scientists thought things were that bad….

….the precision that Nick had demanded of me forced me to own up to my error in a way that vagueness never would. It betrayed the extent to which what had started out in my mind as an exercise in collaborative fiction had already become an insurance policy against a global disaster that I was increasingly convinced was imminent.

Later he frames this decision as more psychological rather than intellectual. A predisposition toward depression coupled with a generalized angst at living within large corporate structures results in a rejection of his existing social and institutional ties. The irony here, as he later admits, is that for one so psychologically fragile discarding structure is about the worst thing he could have done mental health-wise.

Moreover, ever the contrarian, Evans comes to question his own beliefs more rigorously the more advanced the experiment becomes. Intellectually, his certainty is lost and without that comforting narrative ‘Utopia’ become less a personal lifeboat but more of a rip tide dragging him below the waves.

So are there any wider lessons here? I think there are many. First, as behavioural economics teaches us so well, humans and not what the economist Richard Thaler calls ‘Econs’; that is, emotionless calculating machines as opposed to humans. We can only perceive risk and uncertainty within an emotional framework. Humans have an optimism bias partly as an evolutionary means to advertise positive traits that allow us to mate and flourish but partly just to keep us sane. Examining the downside is painful and can lead to isolation, rejection and depression.

Yet perhaps there are those of us who can maintain contrarianism without falling apart. Evans documents how the participants in ‘Utopia’ rapidly progress from viewing the commune as an experiment to one of preparation for real collapse. They need a narrative to inoculate themselves from the outside world. Yet after a time, Evans starts to question all the collapse narratives that the commune volunteers espouse, falls into depression and is eventually replaced as leader by an early volunteer called Agric.

What Agric offers to the remaining volunteers is a narrative of certainty, which Evans could no longer offer. Further, this is a narrative that is immune to any counter-argument since it rests upon an irrefutable theory.

Part of the reason why Agric was so dismissive of any suggestion that civilisation might not be about to collapse was the fact that he had a powerful theory. He was in the grip of Malthus, like many before him. Malthus had shown that population growth must always outstrip food supply, right? He had proved it.

And earlier:

The idea that our civilisation might not only survive global warming but also continue to grow richer had appalled me, and this was perhaps why I had believed so ardently that it would collapse. I had wanted it to. Agric still did.

At this point it would be easy to laugh at the ‘Utopia’ pioneers, painting them as New Age fools. But not so fast. Evans’ story shows how hard it is to disentangle the dispassionate from the emotional when it comes to risk and uncertainty, particularly when it comes to tail risk. But this cuts both ways.

Let’s assign a 1% probability to collapse rather than Evans’ 50% and let’s push out the horizon to five decades rather than one. We are now entering the territory of intellectual respectability. The kind of probabilities that former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees sets out in his book “Our Final Century“.


Yet the vast majority of us are repelled at discussing such negative scenarios. Nick Bostrom points out that the academic literature is many times richer when it comes to publishing papers on dung beetles or Star Trek than it is to considering existential threats to humanity (here).

Academic Prioritisation jpeg

I propose that to seriously consider those dark-side scenarios you need either 1) immense psychological detachment and resilience or 2) no psychological detachment at all (a joyful embrace of the collapse narrative). In short, psychology-wise you need to be built differently from the vast majority.

Nonetheless, some true contrarians do exist in a variety of fields, for example, finance, and walk a fine line between delusion and perception. It is such people who populate Gregory Zuckerman’s book “The Greatest Trade Ever” which retells the story of five individuals who made their fortunes from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Recession. These are not Thaler’s dispassionate, calculating ‘Econs’ devoid of emotion. These are five individuals with their own rather peculiar character quirks who are naturally uncomfortable with both the status quo and the institutions that support the status quo. In this particular case, they emerge from Zuckerman’s book as prescient heroes. Of course, we never hear of the thousands of similar individuals whose backs are broken on the wheel of markets that go the wrong way.

Perhaps our differing reactions to upside and downside risk is nature’s way of hedging its bets. A few of us are comfortable operating in the super optimistic probability tail of upside risk and fewer still like Agric like to wallow in the pessimistic tail of downside risk. From an evolutionary perspective, most of the tail risk jockeys end up as road kill. But things do change, and perhaps a maladaptive mutation will suddenly becomes a vital survival trait. Those Agric-like fellows who believe they know the future will be the equivalent of bacteria on a petri dish that survive a dose of penicillin. A mutation that may previously have been an impediment becomes a life-saver as circumstances change.

We each have our own view of rationality, but it is our emotional state that keeps us sane when seeing the world. Don’t get me wrong: I am no post-modern relativist. For example, I think there does exist an objective assessment of the likelihood that the globe will experience extreme climate change leading to economic collapse by end century (and a non-negligible one at that). This is certainly not enough risk to make me run off to the wilds of Scotland, but it is a risk nevertheless. But I think that only some people can psychologically live with such a fact. Most can’t. The dominant narrative is: let’s pretend that climate change doesn’t exist as a factor in our or our children’s lives and carry on regardless.

Dylan Evans’ story may perhaps be one of the delusion of a few, but humanity’s inability to tackle climate change is a story of the delusion of the many. So let’s not laugh too long at ‘Utopia’.

The Evolution of Aspiration

I’ve been thinking and reading about consumption as seen through the eyes of evolutionary psychologists for some considerable time. This ties in with my interest in well-being economics, particularly the question of why we do things that don’t necessarily make us happy. From an evolutionary perspective, the answer is quite simple: human happiness mechanisms are purely means to an end in evolutionary terms, not ends in themselves. Frankly, our genes don’t care if we are happy; rather, they care that we survive, reproduce and help our close kin to survive and reproduce.

There is scope for reciprocity and trust in this Darwinian jungle. But such higher moral values are again just tools, albeit sophisticated ones, to further our genetic inheritance. We may act altruistic, but this is to either earn potential altruism in return at some future date or purely to signal our superior intellectual or physical fitness.

The evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad argues that a mind is no different from any other organ that has evolved in the body (here).

The human mind is an amalgamation or collection of domain specific computational systems, each of which evolved to solve a specific adaptive problem: find a mate, avoid predators, find nutritious food, avoid poisonous foods, invest in kin, build coalitions and friendships. Each of these important problems would necessitate some adoptive solutions that are ultimately incapsulated in our human minds….

….This is very much well-described by the Swiss Army Knife metaphor. So if you think of the Swiss Army Knife, it is an amalgamation of different knives each of which serves a different function.

Saad doesn’t address the issue of happiness and well-being. However, if you follow his logic, happiness is a dog treat to get our minds to perform these computational tricks. But you don’t give a dog an infinite series of treats after performing one trick. Likewise, we never remain in a permanent state of bliss regardless of our individual evolutionary successes.

An evolutionary psychologist who does delve into the link between evolution and happiness is David Buss of the University of Texas. In a paper called “The Evolution of Happiness“, Buss starts by emphasising that we do what we do because such strategies were successful in the past. Those that may have adopted different strategies in the past are no longer with us, suggesting such strategies were either inferior, or just met unlucky fates. Continue reading

Austerity and Aspiration UK Style

Apologies for my blogging hiatus: I’ve been otherwise engaged for the last few weeks in academic activities, some economics consulting and (most timing consuming of all) grassroots campaigning in the run-up to the UK general election.

I am not a natural ‘party political animal’, being too eclectic in my ideological views. Indeed, I like bits of each party manifesto but find other parts bonkers. Nonetheless, being back on home turf for an election for the first time in over 15 years, I wanted to get involved.

My own personal ‘wedge’ issues in this election were twofold: climate change (as would be expected from this blog) and anti-austerity. Climate change is still, to me, the central risk of our times. It has the potential to overturn everything within my children’s lifetime, not least of which is democracy itself. Unfortunately, neither climate change nor the environment in general feature in the top 10 concerns of the UK public (click for larger image):

Ipsos Mori Election Issues copy

Of the five main political parties that competed in the UK general election–the Conservatives, Labour, Lib-Dem, UKIP and Green–three have an aggressive commitment to act over climate change (Labour, Lib-Dem and Green). Unlike the Republican Party in the US, the Conservatives have in the past also had a forward-looking approach to carbon emission mitigation (as evidenced by their continued support of the UK’s Climate Change Act). The leadership, has, however, grown increasingly lukewarm over leading on the climate-change issue.

With regard to austerity, my stance is more nuanced. In short, why prioritise reducing debt at a time when interest rates on long-term government debt are at rock bottom levels? The following chart is taken from the Bank of England‘s latest “Inflation Report” published on the 13th May, Continue reading

What Maslow Misses

For many years, any discussion of what people want has been shaped by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. His pyramid is perhaps one of the few tenets of psychology that could be referenced by any educated man or woman on the street (click for larger image on all charts).

Maslow jpeg

In reality, the 1943 paper that launched the pyramid, “A Theory of Human Motivation” now looks dated. The pyramid doesn’t recognise homo sapiens as being–if nothing else–social animals. Accordingly, the motivation for what we do is not so much to reach our own personal fulfilment but more to secure the appreciation of those around us–and thus reach our own personal fulfilment at one remove.

Of course, any evolutionary psychologist would emphasise that such acts may ultimately be selfish in terms of securing our genetic inheritance, but we still need others to get where we want to go. We don’t buy a BMW for the driving experience but rather as a signal to those around us of our wealth. Restated, to get what we need–whether sex, friends, family support or status– we must enlist the support of others. The psychologist Pamela Rutledge puts it this way in an article titled “Social Networks: What Maslow Misses“:

But here’s the problem with Maslow’s hierarchy. None of these needs — starting with basic survival on up — are possible without social connection and collaboration.

According to Rutledge, Maslows’ needs exist but there is no hierarchy. Rather, we strive for a variety of goals within a social setting.

Modern Maslow jpeg

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What Does ‘a Good Life’ Mean?

The main British political parties are in the midst of publishing their policy manifestos ahead of the May 7 general election: The Labour, Green and Conservative party manifestos are already out, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP ones are yet to come.

I will focus on the Conservative Party manifesto in this blog post since it could quite easily form the policy platform of the next government. Moreover, in rolling out the manifesto, Prime Minister David Cameron chose to frame the policy prescription in terms of helping people to achieve “a good life”.

As a politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) graduate from Oxford, I am sure the PM is well aware that the term ‘the good life’ carries with it considerable philosophical baggage. Does he give a nod to Aristotle’s definition of “the good life” or has he reduced the concept to mere materialism? Let’s take a look by first pulling out each reference to “a good life”in the speech Cameron gave introducing the new manifesto:

The next five years are about turning the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

Realising the potential of Britain…

…not as a debt-addicted, welfare-burdened, steadily-declining, once-great nation – which is what we found…

…but a country where a good life is there for everyone willing to work for it…

We can be the country that not only lives within its means and pays its way…

…but that offers a good life to those who work hard and do the right thing.

That’s what I mean by a good life – families secure, the peace of mind that comes with a proper job and a career, the security of knowing your children are getting a great education.

…to make this a country where those who work hard and do the right thing can enjoy a good life.

Part of having a good life is having a home of your own.

A good life should mean that raising your family feels like an incredible and joyful and – yes – sometimes exhausting journey…

It’s hard having a good life without a good job.

With five more years we can turn the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

We offer a good life for those willing to try – because we are the party of working people.

So the good life includes 1) employment, 2) home ownership and 3) a great education for your children. It’s pretty pedestrian stuff and certainly a world away from Aristotle’s idea of the good life. Continue reading

Eight Progressive UK Coalition Government Actions to Applaud

The one and only public debate between the leaders of seven UK political parties took place tonight ahead of the UK election May 7. Key topics were 1) austerity, the budget deficit and debt, 2) the NHS, 3) immigration and 4) education and intergenerational inequality. These are all big issues but hardly new.

Forgotten in the general election campaign to date are a series of ground-breaking initiatives taken by the coalition government over the past five years. These are examples of genuinely fresh thinking and should be applauded regardless of your politics. In no particular order:

1. Establishment of The Behavioural Insights Team

Dubbed the ‘nudge unit’ in a hat tip to the book by Thaler and Sunstein, this team has taken the idea of choice architecture into the heart of government. As a result, we have seen such policies as pension provision where your choice is to opt out rather than opt in–so the lazy amongst us create pension savings by default.

The nudge unit comes about from the explicit recognition the humans are not rationale calculating machines as they are portrayed in post-war economics and that frequently ‘wantability’ is different from decision-making that maximizes our well-being (see my post here).

2. Introduction of Well-Being Metrics

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) introduced its Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme in 2010. We now have four questions included in the well-being survey that broadly relate to the three main ideas of happiness–life satisfaction, leading a meaningful life and feelings. As this data set builds, it will give policy-makers a far better idea as to whether what they do makes people happier (click for larger image on the chart below).

How do we evaluate our lives copy

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Wantability, Well-Being and Risk

I’ve been mulling a name change for the blog for some time. The name the “The Rational Pessimist” was a riposte to Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist“. Ridley’s book is a paean to global free markets and human innovation–and in parts is correct. Since the industrial revolution commenced, technology coupled with capitalism has lifted the bulk of the world’s population out of a Hobbesian life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. But where I differ from Ridley is in believing that a 200-year data set of economic growth can fully capture all future risk.

Ridley’s book is Panglossian. He believes that every problem we face–from climate change to resource depletion–is relatively minor, just waiting to be solved by a technological fix. For him, price always trumps scarcity. Whenever something looks like it is running out, the magic of markets will  always lead to new discoveries or acceptable substitutes.

As an economist by training, I accept that the everlasting dance between supply, demand and price is something of beauty. But I also believe that it has its limitations. A backward-looking empirical observation that things haven’t run out is different from a forward-looking theoretical prediction that things won’t ever run out. North Sea oil is running out regardless of price, and a global supply of oil is not qualitatively different from a local one.

Of course, technology may provide a perfect, or dare I say it better, substitute for fossil fuels. But then again it may not. That is uncertainty, and the consequences of that uncertainty is the concept of risk.

Continue reading