Here’s another desultory entry for you. I’m finally done with the semester! The last couple of weeks have been really fun and really tiring. It was my birthday the Wednesday before last, and many people were kind enough to remember. A prolonged birthday celebration combined with various other social outings, a final project, and an extremely addictive and exceedingly long book trilogy I’m reading = yadda yadda yadda, I’m tired today. This week looks to be just as jam-packed.
Happiness is understudied. If you imagine life as just a series of decisions, what’s the best way to live it? A simple and universal metric for making any decision is to weigh the options in terms of the change in expected happiness over your lifetime that will result from each option, and pick the one that makes you the happiest. This is a remarkably simple philosophy, and one that I’ve been weighing for the past couple of years.
To clarify, this decision procedure does not advocate hedonism or selfishness; by using the word “happiness”, I’ve sneakily encompassed all aspects of what you value. For instance, it very well might make you happier to donate to a charity than to not; you might feel better about helping an old lady cross the street than just watching her, even though you do it anonymously and for no reward. Even if you grudgingly have to go save your irresponsible friend from another sticky situation, you probably do it because the alternative — shirking the responsibility yourself — is even less appealing.
I’m not sure how convincing I am here (I’m writing in a big rush), so if you don’t buy this argument, let me know and I’ll flesh it out some more!
Okay, so it’s likely that you already unconsciously apply this metric when making decisions. I’d like to advocate making it as conscious as possible. Instead of saying, “buying product X will save me $50, and that’s good” or “that new 5 megapixel camera takes great pictures!” or “I can’t believe X screwed me over again; I’m going to get back at him”, try to actively quantify that in terms of how much happiness it’s going to bring to you…. of course, many people have advocated this; it’s nothing new. However:
So assume that I’m thinking in this context. How do I make my decisions? How do I decide if I should spend my vacation reading up on a topic that’s always interested me, or hiking? Any decision in this framework is predicated on your happiness function: something that takes in a course of action, and spits out an estimate of how happy it’ll make you. The more accurate this function, the better your decisions will be (and the less you’re likely to regret them). What’s amazing to me is: a) how inaccurate our built-in happiness functions tend to be (see below) and b) how little research there is on what really tends to make people happy. This seems to be the single most fundamentally important question people ask themselves, and yet we’re spending all our money building missile-defense systems (and funding computer science research, haha). Of course, people are very different (which is why some people choose to help the old lady and others don’t), but we’re all human, and it seems likely that, as with other aspects of human nature, our happiness functions overlap in many places. Let’s start widespread studies about what makes people happy! (Or, at least, what makes them think they’re happy, if there’s a difference there.)
Here are some relevant links:
People are bad at estimating their future happiness. People tend to exaggerate the impact of a decision in terms of its expected impact on their happiness. Signs of a bad happiness function! Of course, it’s very plausible that we’re biologically set to mispredict happiness, as that will probably keep us motivated. I wrote about this a while ago.
What does make us happy? A good bit of empirical happiness research. Read it to see how you should spend that raise you just got…
If you search on NewsDog, you can find some more…
Eek, I would like to ramble more but I have to leave soon! (I wrote the rest of this entry first.)
 I really mean “the integral of the change in your happiness” — the total amount of happiness you gain. This favors options that make you happier for longer, which makes sense. For instance, right now you have two options: live your life as you do, or go on a coke-fueled binge until you O.D. and die. This second option will likely make you very happy, but only for a short period of time (before you die prematurely). The first option may not be as exhilarating, but the total amount of happiness you derive from it — over the full extent of your natural life — most likely makes it a more appealing candidate. (However, this theory does suggest that very old people should go on cocaine-fueled binges, rather than waiting for a sad, drawn-out death. I’m not sure that this is such a terrible idea.)
Does the jury system make sense? Metallica’s, … And Justice For All happened to be sitting on my desk the other day, and it reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had about the jury system. A couple of years ago, I had a really interesting conversation with my friend Caterina while hiking up Half Dome in Yosemite. She was studying to be a judge in Italy. It turns out their legal system is quite different from ours with respect to trials: decisions are made by judges, rather than by a jury of normal citizens. The decisions are fully documented by the judges and are peer-reviewed for bias or inaccuracy.
At first, this struck me as bizarre, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Here are some of the flaws (that I think are) present in the jury system:
- Jurors probably don’t know the law very well. I certainly don’t. Each juror has to be informed of the nuances of the law — and is then expected to apply it correctly, with little or no prior experience. A trial judge presumably is well-equipped to apply the law.
- Jurors are more susceptible to trickery. Good trial lawyers seem to be known for their persuasive powers, their ability to convincingly humanize or demonize the defendant, their knack of “touching the hearts of the jury”, or whatever. If it’s a matter of interpreting the law and the evidence, then this kind of stuff should not be a part of the process. Granted, there is a lot of subjectivity in law, but I’d rather trust a professional who is aware of and resistant to the persuasive tactics of lawyers than ordinary people who have no such defenses. (It seems to me that, in theory, the outcome of a trial should not be a function of the quality of the lawyers arguing it.)
- A jury is also more susceptible to corruption. All you have to do to prevent a guilty verdict is to get a single juror to adamantly stick with “not guilty”, forcing a hung jury. I imagine it’s a lot easier to bribe a single juror — often pseudo-anonymous and protected — whose life only tangentially relates to the trial at hand, and who has very little accountability in the end result, than it is to bribe a judge whose entire career stands to be ruined.
- Jurors have other lives. We are required by law to serve as jurors, often at great personal cost and inconvenience, and with little compensation. I’ve never actually been in a real jury, but I imagine that as a result there is probably some pressure to get a trial over with, which might lead to some rash judgements.
Of course, there are problems with the judge-only system, too: are the judges elected or appointed? Can we design a peer-review system that’s transparent enough to root out bad or corrupt judges? etc. But I think the current system has enough flaws that it’s worth considering.
Anyway, I have jury duty next Monday, so I may get to see how things go first-hand :).
Cal’s football season. My friend Tom is expecting me to rant about the recent BCS fiasco, and who am I to disappoint someone who actually reads this blog? Here’s the background: Cal (Berkeley) had its best football season in about 50 years, losing only one game — and that one, a nailbiter decided by one bad possession, was to the number 1 team in the country, USC. Yet Cal ended up fifth in the country in the BCS rankings, just narrowly missing out on $10 million and a chance to play in the Rose Bowl. Here’s my take on the situation:
Cal should have been fifth. Perhaps to make a point, Cal didn’t run up the score on some of its opponents, a tactic traditionally necessary to rank highly in the BCS. Then they complained about getting a bad ranking. This is dumb. Either you play by the rules of the system, however foolish, or you make a statement (as they did), and then deal with the consequences. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways. Also, by the end of the season, Cal’s receiving corps was totally devastated (its last good receiver broke his leg in the last game) and thus Cal really wasn’t as good a team as it was earlier in the season. Dropping from fourth to fifth seems acceptable in this context. (Of course, even then, the fact that “according to a Sports Illustrated report, three writers — from Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin — changed their fourth-place votes from Cal to Texas in the final AP poll” [from here] pisses me off.)
The two real travesties, then, are: first, there are four “real” BCS bowl games, which you might think should include the top eight teams in the nation. Cal is in none of them. That’s crazy. Second, J. J. Arrington had an unbelievable season — clearly better than the other Heisman RB candidates — and wasn’t even close to winning the Heisman — mostly because of the idiotic practice by the sports media of picking preseason Heisman candidates and hyping them up all season, even if better players surface along the way. Grr.