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Continuous Improvement

16 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 January 2009 02:09AM

When is it adaptive for an organism to be satisfied with what it has?  When does an organism have enough children and enough food?  The answer to the second question, at least, is obviously "never" from an evolutionary standpoint.  The first proposition might be true if the reproductive risks of all available options exceed their reproductive benefits.  In general, though, it is a rare organism in a rare environment whose reproductively optimal strategy is to rest with a smile on its face, feeling happy.

To a first approximation, we might say something like "The evolutionary purpose of emotion is to direct the cognitive processing of the organism toward achievable, reproductively relevant goals".  Achievable goals are usually located in the Future, since you can't affect the Past.  Memory is a useful trick, but learning the lesson of a success or failure isn't the same goal as the original event—and usually the emotions associated with the memory are less intense than those of the original event.

Then the way organisms and brains are built right now, "true happiness" might be a chimera, a carrot dangled in front of us to make us take the next step, and then yanked out of our reach as soon as we achieve our goals.

This hypothesis is known as the hedonic treadmill.

The famous pilot studies in this domain demonstrated e.g. that past lottery winners' stated subjective well-being was not significantly greater than that of an average person, after a few years or even months.  Conversely, accident victims with severed spinal cords were not as happy as before the accident after six months—around 0.75 sd less than control groups—but they'd still adjusted much more than they had expected to adjust.

This being the transhumanist form of Fun Theory, you might perhaps say:  "Let's get rid of this effect.  Just delete the treadmill, at least for positive events."

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