Monday, May 3, 2010

Would an hedonimeter help us to choose between push-pin and poetry?

There seems to be enduring interest in the post, ‘Is push-pin as good as poetry’, that I wrote a few years ago. That post was about John Stuart Mill’s rejection of Jeremy Bentham’s assertion that if the game of push-pin gives more pleasure than poetry then it is more valuable than poetry. Mill argued that some pleasures are superior to others and that it is possible for people to become addicted to inferior pleasures. I followed up on the question of whether push-pin might be addictive in a subsequent post.

A logical place to begin this post would be to define an hedonimeter. Before I do that, however, I want to make the point that Mill’s thoughts about higher and lower pleasures seem to have been a side-track that did not lead anywhere in the subsequent development of economics. A few years after publication of Mill’s essay on utilitarianism, the famous economist, William Stanley Jevons, came down strongly in favour of Bentham’s view of utility. According to Jevons:

Whatever can produce pleasure or prevent pain may possess utility. ... The food which prevents the pangs of hunger, the clothes which fend off the cold of winter, possess incontestable utility; but we must beware of restricting the meaning of the word by any moral considerations. Anything which an individual is found to desire and to labour for must be assumed to possess for him utility. In the science of Economics we treat men not as they ought to be, but as they are’ (‘The Theory of Political Economy’, 1871, III.2).

Francis Edgeworth, who came with the idea of an hedonimeter, was a strong supporter of Jevons’ view that utility has two relevant dimensions: intensity and time. Edgeworth suggested that we:
‘...imagine an ideally perfect instrument, a psychophysical machine, continually registering the height of pleasure experienced by an individual ... From moment to moment the hedonimeter varies; the delicate index now flickering with the flutter of the passions, now steadied by intellectual activity, low sunk whole hours in the neighbourhood of zero, or momentarily springing up towards infinity’ (‘Mathematical Physics’, 1881).

I think that description tells us, in today’s language, that an hedonimeter might be a sexy idea. It will probably be a long time before you can buy an hedonimeter at your local supermarket but research indicates that levels of various chemicals (e.g. cortisol) in the body and activity in various parts of the brain are related to pleasant and unpleasant experiences. It seems likely that if we were able to conduct surveys using hedonimeters – perhaps one day it might be possible to carry one around like a pedometer – they would give similar results to those obtained by Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger using evaluated time use (ETU) techniques. In surveys using ETU techniques respondents are asked to account for time spent on various activities on the preceding day and to rate their feelings for each activity in terms of a range of affective categories e.g. happy, worried/ anxious or angry/hostile. The ETU data suggests that people tend to get most pleasure from sex and socializing and least pleasure from working and commuting.

If anyone was really interested in comparing the pleasures people obtain from push-pin and poetry it is possible to imagine conducting an experiment in which participants played push-pin and attended poetry readings and rated their experiences. If you were concerned that such information might not be relevant to you personally, you might be able to get someone to design an appropriate experiment to enable you to rate and record your emotions during the two experiences.

How would you feel about using the results of an ETU exercise (or an hedonimeter) to decide something that may actually be important to you – for example, whether to play sport A or B or have a holiday at location X or Y - on the basis of the balance of emotions that you have experienced in those activities in the past? I don’t know about you, but I would want to see whether the hedonimeter results are consistent with my memories of the different experiences before I decided whether to use them.

A recent presentation by Daniel Kahneman (on TED) suggests that what my reflective self might feel about my memories of the experiences that I want to choose between could differ substantially from the emotions that my experiencing self has actually felt (or what an accurate hedonimeter might record).

Would you ignore the evidence of an hedonimeter if it conflicted with your memories of the experience? Would you ignore suggestions from your spouse or a friend that your memories of a holiday might be biased by the way you felt about something that happened at the end? If you had a reliable hedonimeter to record your memory of past pleasures would you give less weight to consideration of what experiences it is good to have (or issues such as those raised by J S Mill about the superiority and inferiority of different pleasures) in making your choices? Why do humans have selective memories? Do our selective memories serve a useful function from an evolutionary perspective?
Winton Bates

Postscript 1:
In retrospect I would like to add some further questions: Do the reasons why human have selective memories make any difference to the way you and I should live our lives? If I am told that there are good evolutionary reasons why I should remember how an experience ended (e.g. because it was important to the survival of my ancestors to remember which of their hunting expeditions were successful and unsuccessful) is this relevant to the decisions I should make today?
I am beginning to think that while the evolutionary reasons for cognitive bias may be interesting they may not be particularly relevant to our current decision-making.

Postscript 2:
I obviously became sidetracked while attempting to answer this question. My answer is that whether the hedonimeter would help us to make the choice depends on the criterion we think is most appropriate. If the criterion is pleasure, the hedonimeter might help. If the criterion is what is good for us, then pleasure is only factor that we would take into account and an accurate measure of pleasure might not be particularly useful. We might consider that it is better for us to spend Thursday evenings reading poetry rather than playing pushpin even though we might get more pleasure from playing pushpin.


Lori said...

What happens when people start using the hedonimeter as a biofeedback device?

Winton Bates said...

Hi Lori
I suppose that people using an hedonimeter as a feedback device might experience more pleasure. But that would not necessarily mean that they feel more satisfied with their lives.

Lori said...

Satisfaction may be related to satiability.

Winton Bates said...

I like the idea that 'if you stretch your horizons far enough, self interest rewards that you seek become virtually indistinguishable from altruism'.
The distinction between wanting and liking is also relevant. See:

Ian said...

It sounds right to me that my reflective self often feels different about the value to me of a given experience than my experiencing self. That would mean that I might think very good some past experience that might have registered quite low on my hedonometer. But I don't see any general reason to think that we should favor the experiencing self's valuation of an experience over the reflective self's valuation.

There seems to be a sense in which the experiencing self's valuation of an experience is more real than the reflective self's valuation of it. But the reflective self is the one I have to live with, long term: the experience itself is fleeting.

I mean, if I experienced something as pretty good, but reflectively find that experience to have been pretty bad, isn't the negative reflective judgment the one I have to live with? Doesn't it have more importance for me?

What do you think?

Winton Bates said...

I think you are right, Ian. The reflective judgement is the one we have to live with. I suppose the point is that we should reflect on the possibility that our memories might be biassed.