There's an interesting talk by Psychologist Dan Gilbert on TED around
how people make choices, and their apparent inability to make rational
decisions... I think it's very interesting in light of the discussion
of happiness - the link between consumerism and happiness - but also
points to other insights into why people behave as they do.
It's worth seeing in full... if you do watch it, hold on til the 31st
minute for an attack from the floor on economists' tendency to
underestimate the value and influence of human feeling on decision
Here are some highlights...
Dan Gilbert states that 'comparing with the past causes many of the
problems behavioural psychologists and economists identify in peoples'
attempts to assign value, but even when we compare with the possible
instead of the past, people make certain kinds of mistake [...]
comparison changes the value of things [...] the comparisons we make
when we are apraising value, evaluating, trying to estimate how much
we will like things, are not the same comparisons we'll be making when
we comsume them. These comparisons can bedevil our attempts to make
rational decisions. [...] our predictions are perverted by a
comparison that then does not carry through in our experience.'
Here Glibert is emphasising the importance of context to how we value
and experience different things, we compare everything to the context
we experience it in, rather than its actual or true value and as a
result we make irrational decisions. 'The comparison you make in the
store is a comparison you'll never make again'
'Our brains are evovled for a very different world from the one in
which we're living, they are evolved for a world where we lived in
small groups, rarely met anyone who was different from themselves, had
rather short lives, few choices and the highest priority was to eat
and mate today [...] that's why we have to become good [at making
rational decisions], fast. The only thing that can destroy us is our
own decisions [...] if we're not here in ten thousand years, it's
going to be because we underestimated the odds of our future pain, and
overestimated the value of our present pleasures'
He finishes with some interesting commentary on our inability to value
things that are far-off (either in the future or presumably
geographically distant as well), people are not good at being far-
sighted, but Gilbert suggests that by adding colour or detail to
scenarios, so that people can imagine them (in relation to themselves)
is the best strategy for enabling them to assign greater value and
therefore make decisions in a way which will add value (in their eyes)
to that scenario.