Illusions about the future

Dave Pollard reviews a book by Daniel Gilbert called Stumbling on Happiness. According to Dave the book suggests we are, as a species, not terribly competent at imagining the future for three reasons.

1. Illusions of realism: our imagination is so powerfu, we’re not sufficieintly sceptical of its products.

We conjure up perfect stereotypes of behaviours and events. We omit details of the future in our future imaginings that will powerfully affect how we will feel. We fail to imagine what won’t happen. We make compound errors both of ‘filling in’ and ‘leaving out’ in our imagined vision of our future selves and future lives. As a result, what we plan and strive for is unreal, a complete fiction. And when we get there, we are bound to be disappointed.

2. Illusions of presentism: we tend to project the present into the future, discounting potential for change and discontinuity

3. Illusions of rationalisation:

We possess what Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” which “cooks the facts” (shades of Lakoff) and provides us with comforting illusions about ourselves and our situation. We see ourselves more positively than objectively, and while we do most things subconsciously, we positively rationalize ‘conscious’ reasons for what we do, and don’t do, in order to make ourselves feel better, and more ‘in control’. We regret inactions more than actions. And illogically we view situations that we perceive as inevitable more positively than very similar situations over which we have some choice.

This makes sense to me. In my training in gestalt therapy, there was a lot of focus on separating our experience from our fantasies based on experience, which often get us into trouble. I found this analysis rather cheering. It feels like a relief in some ways to feel less in control of the future and therefore a little less responsible for it. I could understand others feeling less comfortable though.

Does this mean we should stop planning? Obviously not. But it’s a good pushback against getting carried away with it and a nudge toward living more in the present.

Based on Dave’s analysis, I’m not too convinced by Gilbert’s proposed strategy for planning the future:

…finding ‘surrogates’ — people who are now in a situation similar to the one you think you might be in in the future, and asking yourself if you would be happy if you’d done what they did and were doing what they’re doing. Less imagination, and more research.

That might add a useful perspective but I fear it would be subject to the same kinds of self-delusion Gilbert highlights elsewhere.

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