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Maslow Be Damned: How Social Belonging Trumps Everything

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The need for social belonging is the primal human need – and failure to have it satisfied is subjectively worse than death.


Social Pain Causes Suicide

People don’t commit suicide out of just any sorrow.

What suffering, specifically, is bad enough to cause people to want to pull the plug on existence itself? It is only and exclusively social pain.

The most modern, scientific model of the causes of suicide that we have is that articulated by Thomas Joiner in his 2005 book Why People Die By Suicide (my review here). Joiner’s model, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, posits three conditions that reliably predict suicide: a failure of social belonging, the perception of oneself as a burden on others, and the development of competence in actually carrying out the difficult act of suicide. Only the competence factor is not a direct function of social belonging.

Other kinds of pain aren’t sufficient to cause suicide – not hunger, not remorse, not even extreme physical pain. The research suggests that being a valued member of a social group, with a role to play in supporting others, is the most basic human need – not just on par with, but frequently surpassing other human needs such as those for food, shelter, sleep, and sex.

For example, the misery of prison is primarily one of failed social belonging. In the general population, marriage is protective against suicide, as is employment. But married prisoners and prisoners who were employed prior to incarceration are more likely to commit suicide than unmarried, unemployed prisoners. For the first group, incarceration represents a severance of important social bonds and a failure of belonging. For the second group, prison may merely be a continuation of previous social belonging experiences.

The fear of death itself may be, when reduced to its essence, primarily a fear of the ultimate social cutting-off, the final ostracism. The data on suicide and social belonging support the idea of suicide as revealed preference – that the value of life is not as high as the negative value of complete social ostracism. This is in contrast to the idea of suicide as necessarily irrational and a product of mental illness.

Hunger and Sympathy

The United Nations reported in 2009 that over one billion people are hungry in the world; that number currently grows by about a hundred million a year. The suffering of physical hunger is the easiest form of suffering to empathize with; indeed, a recent Foreign Policy article noted that the statistic of a billion hungry “grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.”

Here’s the fascinating thing about hunger, though: as bad as prolonged malnutrition is – and we all agree that it is very bad – poor, hungry people do not spend every extra cent on more calories.

When staples like wheat and rice are subsidized so that people may buy them at a cheaper price, in many cases they buy less of the staple, and more meat and shrimp. People suffering from severe malnutrition (wasting, growth stunting) still spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Starving families still have televisions and cellular phones.

One response to this is to harden one’s heart: if they’re not hungry enough to spend every spare rupee on more calories, they must not be hungry enough to deserve our sympathy (much less our money).

A more productive response would be to view the data for what they are: evidence that some things are more painful than hunger. Specifically, the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances, but a quick look at actual practices reveals that they are generally used socially (as in the fixed men’s social groups that smoke together late into the night, in the 600-person Indian village Christopher Alexander studies in the appendix to his Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Spending on “festivals” is by its nature social. Television, described by one interviewee in the Foreign Policy article as “more important than food,” functions both as a social focus for actual people, and a pleasant, comforting substitute for actual socialization. (Cellular phones need no explanation.) Even the “better tasting” food the poor seem to buy rather than more cheap, boring, nutritious food – the meat and shrimp from the China wheat study – is “high status” food, conveying a social message at least as important as its nutritional function.

As I have stated before, poverty doesn’t just suck – it hurts. I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful – not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

What We Know About Social Pain

Why and how do we perceive social pain and social belonging, and how do these perceptions affect us? A recent body of research has provided some surprising answers.

  1. Social pain hurts like physical pain. fMRI studies have demonstrated that the pain of perceived social rejection involves the same brain regions as physical pain. Social pain even responds to acetaminophen!
  2. Social pain is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, even if they don’t register it as such. People experience about one episode of social ostracism per day.
  3. Social pain is irrational. Subjects experience pain and lowered mood as a consequence of social ostracism even when they are explicitly told that it is merely a computer doing the “ostracizing.” The pain of exclusion affects even people playing a computer ball game who are told their computers are not yet connected to the other computers, making inclusion logically impossible! Even ostracism by a despised outgroup – say, the KKK – induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups.
  4. Social pain affects individuals differently. A normal individual will experience depressed mood after minor social exclusion, but will recover within 45 minutes. A person with social anxiety will not have recovered even from a minor social exclusion after 45 minutes. Repeated exposure to cues of social rejection may even sensitize individuals to these cues, resulting in even more needless pain.
  5. What about autists? A 2011 study found that the brains of adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder did not process cues of social rejection the same as neurotypical brains, but they were just as hurt and concerned after experiencing social rejection! Not even autistic folks are immune from the pain of failed social belonging.

(For more on this fascinating subject, here are lists of publications for Kip Williams and Naomi Eisenberger, two major researchers in the field of social pain and ostracism. Williams’ “Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death” is an excellent introduction to the field.)

To sum up, social pain is more common, more painful, and less rational than is widely understood. Experiencing social pain is not optional; unfortunately, neither is causing social pain. By virtue of being born, each of us will cause innumerable incidents of social pain in others throughout our lives – most commonly without realizing it at all. But it’s actually much worse than that, because one of the most common, effective responses to experiencing social ostracism is aggression toward others, even others not involved in the original ostracism event. Negative ripples spread out from each incident of social pain – and all the while the proximate source of the social pain may be entirely unaware of having caused it.

Analysis of a Decision to Smile

To illustrate the problem, consider the following everyday decision: whether or not to smile at a passing stranger.

A conscientious actor with a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology literature will know that smiling at a stranger is potentially damaging, especially if the actor is attractive. When a woman smiles and acts warmly toward a man, he becomes less satisfied with his current partner. So smiling at a stranger may damage his relationship – negatively affecting not just him, but those around him as well, such as his partner and children.

However, the actor must also be aware that failing to smile may induce feelings of social ostracism in the stranger. This will not only cause the stranger suffering (especially if he happens to have social anxiety), but may cause him to act aggressively toward others to recover from the social pain.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the idea of the hedonic treadmill – the fact that an increase in welfare (say, from winning the lottery) does not lead to greater happiness, but causes one to reset one’s expectations at a higher level. A benefit may only make the same level of happiness more expensive. I hope that this example illustrates that there is also an altruistic treadmill. It is impossible to do good for someone, because his expectations will reset to account for the deed. Unfortunately, others – even strangers – already depend on our altruistic inputs to them, and will feel their absence even while their provision would not make them any happier. It’s a Giant’s Drink situation: the only winning move is not to play.

But we’ve already all been forced to play.

The Lonely Modern

In learning about social pain, we have discovered a new Civilization and Its Discontents issue. Philippe Rochat, in a postscript to his excellent Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, presents a picture of the kind of social life we evolved to experience:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the
day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. One rediscovers what might be a long-lost intimacy and bonding with others, something like the absolute trust and acknowledgment we might have experienced once in love or with our mother in the long-lost high-dependence state of infancy. Who knows? What I am convinced of, however, and have tried to convince the reader of this book is that this kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for ‘‘the good life,’’ a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge. [Emphasis mine.]

Rochat provides a glimpse of the alternative to our modern experience of daily social ostracism and consequent social pain: small village organization. Of course, this is not a real alternative; it is not possible for our enormous, complex modern society to operate in this way. Most of us would not even wish to live in this way, with its concomitant social control and extreme conservatism. I certainly would not. But it demonstrates that we are adapted to something very different than the environment in which we live. And this necessary mismatch – which, in fact, defines us as moderns – ensures that we will all suffer, and make each other suffer, interminably.

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Written by Sister Y

May 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm

What Portion of Human Welfare is Comparative Welfare?

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Some portion of human welfare is independent of the welfare of other humans. A person can enjoy food, touch, music, and intoxicating substances regardless of the well-being of anyone else; similarly, a person can suffer from physical pain, hunger, or nausea no matter what other humans are up to—even if no other humans exist.

However, some other portion of human welfare (of unknown magnitude) is directly dependent on the welfare of others. This “comparative welfare” may come in two forms:

  • Empathetic welfare: that portion of human welfare that has a positive or direct correlation with the welfare of others. (Example: I feel bad when I see a homeless person who looks unhappy; I feel happy when I see a puppy wag its tail.)
  • Status welfare: that portion of human welfare that has a negative or inverse relationship with the welfare of others. (Example: I feel happy when I win a contest; I feel sad when I have to wear less expensive clothes than my peers.)

The nice thing about non-comparative welfare (welfare independent of the welfare of others) and empathetic welfare is that they may be positive-sum. Consensual transactions may be possible to make all parties better off in terms of non-comparative and empathetic welfare.

The problem with status welfare is that it is zero-sum. No transaction involving status welfare can possibly make all parties better off.

A great deal of evidence exists to support the unfortunate proposition that status welfare accounts for a large proportion of human welfare. Further, the effects of status on welfare are likely themselves a function of status – marginal status changes may have more of an effect on welfare for those of low status than for those of high status.

Status Welfare is Large

Several bodies of research support the proposition that status welfare is a large part of human welfare. (Many of these are cited in the paper “The Economics of Happiness” by Paul Graham at the Brookings Institution. In addition, Richard Wilkinson’s 2006 book The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier is a book-length treatment of the problem; I have not yet read it.)

  • Easterlin paradox” – happiness and income have a much stronger relationship within-country than between countries, at least beyond the level of abject poverty. Status welfare would be expected to come more from within-country differences (directly perceptible) than between-country differences (less immediately perceptible).
  • Homicide rates are highly correlated with income inequality. As income inequality and absolute poverty tend to go together, it has been difficult to establish whether income inequality or mere poverty is the driving force behind such negative competitive outcomes as homicide. However, a 2001 study found that income inequality is a better predictor of homicide rates than mere poverty.
  • Studies directly measuring the effect of income and/or wealth inequality find that inequality has a negative effect on well-being. The effect is larger for Europe than for the United States, and higher for Latin America than for either of these. These studies capture only within-country status, not status within smaller groups, and therefore must be seen as only part of the picture in terms of status welfare.
  • Welfare is affected more by unemployment than by inflation, dollar for dollar. Unemployment tracks inequality, whereas inflation applies to all equally.
  • Many animals change reproductive strategies depending on relative status. Status, therefore, must have strong effects on fitness.
  • In male humans, winning or losing a competition – even vicariously – is associated with hormonal changes, specifically an increase or decrease in testosterone levels, respectively.
  • Blacks and Hispanics spend a much larger share of income on visible consumption (clothing, jewelry, cars) than do comparable Whites.
  • Health effects of inequality are large, and less than a third of the difference is explained by risky behaviors of the poor.

The key point here is that there is a large component of human suffering that free markets and free choice have no hope of mediating. Merely being in a socially stratified market economy imposes a cost on those of lowest status.

The happy trample on the backs of the unhappy. This is not merely an observed fact of our world that can be changed, but an underlying truth of any human system. The unhappy cannot all be made happy. Human existence necessarily implies a high degree of misery for some part of the population. How does the happiness of the lucky justify the suffering of the unlucky?

Comparative Welfare and the Rational Decision Maker

A further problem is that lumping both types of comparative welfare, as well as non-comparative welfare, together as “utility” complicates the classical economic model of individuals as rational actors maximizing their utility.

In a classical economic transaction, two parties consent to an exchange, and are both made better off. All individuals must do in order to achieve higher and higher society-wide happiness is to pursue their own ends rationally. The simplicity and optimism of this model are challenged by the sad fact that an individual’s welfare correlates (in a complicated manner) with the welfare of various others.

Contract law recognizes this problem, especially with regard to transactions that do NOT take place “at arm’s length”—that is, transactions where the participants explicitly care about the welfare of the other participants. This can be traced back to its origins in Gemora, with its different rules for transactions with different groups (e.g., loyalty/no interest on loans for in-group, charging interest okay for out-group).

Most humans (sociopaths and saints excluded) have some component of welfare that is empathetic welfare, and some component that is status welfare. These components are likely large—and vary within populations. These complicate in a rather extreme manner the computational tasks of economic man; transactional partners must be modeled not just as self-interest-maximizers, but as (a) self-interest maximizers, (b) maximizers of the interests of certain others, and (c) maximizers of the difference between one’s own well-being and the well-being of certain others. That is, humans are—to some unknown degree—inquality maximizers.

Update: An interesting response on Why I Am Not.

Written by Sister Y

February 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm

The Patriarchy, the Gynocracy, and Other Comforting Myths of Struggle

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This post was very sweetly nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize. I think Karl Smith’s Pessimist Manifesto articulates the same philosophical points more generally and better.


Conspiracy theories are comforting. They posit an enemy – “bad guys” who are responsible for the mess we’re in – and they give us a group to imagine we’re struggling against, allowing us to be the “good guys.”

Patriarchy is, of course, real – in the Sudan, in Afghanistan, and for tens of thousands of years of human history. “Males dominate public/political realm” is on D.E. Brown’s list of human universals; it characterizes every human society that has ever been studied. Contrary to the wishes of wiccans and the like, there never have been any female-dominated societies.

In the modern West, however, almost all legal barriers to gender equality have been removed – as well as many practical ones (e.g., birth control, abortion, and the information economy). So why aren’t all our problem solved? Why do men still commit the vast majority of lethal violence? Why do men still “dominate the public/political realm”? Why aren’t there as many female math professors as male math professors? Why are female leading actors still mostly young and beautiful?

The comforting conspiracy theory is that all this is from socialization. Boys and girls are somehow influenced, from a young age, to take on the gender roles that they do. If we “good guys” could only change this socialization, then all the problems attributed to patriarchy would vanish.

But only an evolution denier could hold such a position (and, indeed, many feminists are evolutionary psychology deniers). A species with (historic and present) effective polygyny as high as ours is never going to achieve gender equality in anything but a legal sense.

And gynocracy, of course, is real, too – at least recently, in the West. While there are few situations in which the law prefers men over women, there are many situations in which the law protects (and sometimes “protects”) women at the expense of men’s interests. Here are a few:

  • By United States federal law, baby girls may not have their genitals mutilated, but baby boys may.
  • The near-universal prohibition on prostitution primarily affects men’s interests, because men are nearly the sole consumers of sexual services of both male and female prostitutes (fantasies like the television show Hung notwithstanding). A male who is unwilling or unable to enter a mutual sexual output contract has few legal options for obtaining sexual services – certainly a very important part of human happiness.
  • For a female, consent to sex does not equal consent to have and support a child. For a male, it does. A man may be forced to support a child he did not wish to have merely because he is the genetic parent.
  • On the other hand, for a female, being the genetic parent is enough to establish parental rights to the child. A male must often demonstrate more than genetic paternity – e.g., a relationship with the child or attempt to support the child – in order to have parental rights recognized at law.

The above examples of what might be termed “gynocracy” are wrong, and should be rectified. But will all the problems between men and women disappear if only we get the right legal system in place? If it didn’t work for women, why would we expect it to work for men? Or for any other oppressed group?

Evil exists. But there is no “enemy” except ourselves. Evolution has created organisms that compete with each other – intrasexually as well as intersexually. Our organism has developed the concepts of “good” and “evil,” “fairness and “cheating,” that help us live in large groups and compete successfully. But all the “good” and “fairness” in the world does not guarantee human happiness. In fact, it is human suffering that is guaranteed.

Conceiving of problems as struggles between us and our enemies is problematic because it gives false hope – hope that one can “win” the struggle. If only the right people were in charge, we think, things would be alright.

But the hope is a false one. Problems such as those between men and women are deep, systemic, and insoluble. They are part of our nature and will always exist. If we perpetuate our species, we perpetuate the problems. There will never be a time when “it was all worth it” – when we can look back on our previous struggles and pat ourselves on the back.

As we perpetuate our species, we do so on the backs of the suffering. And always shall.

On the curious proposition that women are as violent as men in relationships, see also my Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence.

Written by Sister Y

July 23, 2010 at 12:03 am

Limits on Human Happiness

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There are certain biologically-determined features of human beings that function as limitations on human happiness, regardless of the system of government that is in place. I wish to list a few of these, sticking to limitations whose existence few would deny and for which there is substantial evidence, without getting into speculative evolutionary biology territory. These are things that are unlikely to be remedied by any system of government or intervention. The only change that might remedy these limitations is a biological one – for instance, a physical change from a human body and human brain to a different sort of cognitive architecture.

I am using the term “happiness” in a broad sense here, not merely in a hedonistic sense, so that it includes things like satisfaction of preferences as determined by the individual (which preferences must, of course, be partially biologically determined).

• Parents exercise control over children, despite the mismatch between parental interests and the interests of the child. A child cannot control himself, yet no one else’s interests match his own. His parents’ interests are frequently extremely different from his own – even a stranger would be more likely to make decisions on the child’s behalf that reflect the child’s values, rather than the parents. Of course, an unrelated person is also much more likely to abuse or kill the child.

• Inequality is ubiquitous, overdetermined, and harmful. Inequality is ineradicable, both in terms of initial endowment (which is determined by necessary genetic variability) and in terms of economic distribution, regardless of the system of distribution. Inequality, in and of itself, causes suffering, regardless of the absolute level of material prosperity of the population. (The murder rate, for instance, more closely tracks inequality than overall poverty.) Even given an initially equal distribution, inequality would be guaranteed by the human preference for comparative well-being, rather than absolute well-being.

• Humans’ interest in maximizing sex is limited by the suffering caused by violent sexual jealousy. Neither the interest in sex nor the jealousy is likely to change.

• Predominant heterosexuality, combined with the fact that the two genders experience different (average) sex drives, ensures frustration. Again, neither of these is likely to change. Widespread polygyny is not a solution that ensures a reduction in overall suffering, even where it is freely chosen by all partners, as it necessarily imposes celibacy and suffering on a large number of men who are not party to the polygynous arrangement.

• Exploitation will always be lucrative, and sociopaths and other “cheaters” will always be with us. Sociopathy, as an evolutionary beneficial strategy at low frequencies, occurs (with low frequencies) in all human populations. Given any set of rules, from the ultraminimal state to totalitarian communism, figuring out how to successfully deviate from the rules in a way that benefits the individual will always be a benefit.

And, of course, there’s this.

These, along with widely recognized limitations on human happiness such as aging, mortality, limited resources, and the lack of inherent meaning in life, act to limit the realistic expectations for happiness in even the most just nation imaginable. There may be hope for posthumans, but there is no realistic hope for humans to live lives of unlimited happiness. In many ways, suffering is guaranteed.

Edit: Here’s another one.

• Shame is necessary for human development and social functioning, and necessarily unpleasant. The presence of shame is ineradicable, nor would it be desirable to eradicate it. Nevertheless, it causes intense suffering for many, with the exception of those with antisocial personality disorder.

Written by Sister Y

June 11, 2008 at 8:46 pm