Neurological research by Kent Berridge suggests that separate brain mechanisms control wanting and liking (described here). In Daniel Nettle’s words, we can crave for something very much but take little or no pleasure in it once we have it (“Happiness”, 2005: 126).
As a former smoker I think I already understood this before I had heard that separate brain mechanisms control wanting and liking. After a while the main pleasure in smoking was the temporary release from craving.
Nettle argues that the evolutionary purpose of the wanting system is to trick us into seeking things like status and resources even though such things may not make us happier. In his view we tend to want such things because they were important to the reproductive success of our ancestors: “The things we want in life are the things the evolved mind tells us to want, and it doesn’t give a fig about our happiness”.
Nettle suggests that the wanting system “draws us to compete for promotion or a higher salary; a larger house or more material goods; an attractive partner or 2.4 children” (152). It seems to me that a lot of people might feel that such goals were worth pursuing even if they knew that they were not likely to be much happier if they managed to achieve them.
Colin Camerer has given several examples of wanting-liking gaps that more clearly challenge the conventional economic view that people make rational choices (‘Wanting, liking and learning: neuroscience and paternalism’, here). In the case of drug addiction, wanting can be created by a desire to avoid the pain of withdrawal even though drug use is not actually pleasurable. People suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders feel a strong desire to perform particular acts even though they obtain little pleasure from them. Shopaholics want to buy goods that they don’t use. People who make excessive use of their credit cards may be too strongly influenced by the wanting system, instead of weighing up the pleasure of having the goods against the cost of paying for them.
Camerer introduces the learning system into the analysis: “Learning is a process by which the wanting system comes to know what the liking system likes”. He suggests that the conventional economic view that what people like can be inferred from the choices that they make only holds in “the special case where learning has taught wanting what is liked” (109). This is the case where people have learned from past mistakes.
Camerer suggests that some gaps between wanting and liking may justify government paternalism of various kinds. However, such proposals raise many questions. Is there any reason to believe that gaps between wanting and liking are of less importance in making political decisions (voting) than in making market choices? If we vote for paternalistic government, what are the chances that we will like the kind of government that we get? Would we actually like living under a paternalistic government that relieved us of the personal challenge of dealing with gaps between what we want and what we like? Would this help us to become the kinds of people we would like to become?