Sunday, January 3, 2010

Our Brain’s Surprising Mistake: Freedom, Prediction and Marriage

There may not be a more intensely American value than Freedom. It is one of the few things seen by almost all as an unqualified good. The last administration used it as a trump card in support of foreign wars and domestic tax cuts. The current administration has followed suit, leveraging[1] our passion for freedom on behalf of their pursuits. In a world where we can not remotely agree on what is good, valuable or beautiful, the thing we fight most intensely for is self determination of those criteria. Many of fiction and history’s most compelling figures were revolutionary agents for their self determination. Shoot, the climatic moment of one of the best movies ever simply consists of the disemboweled protagonist yelling ‘FREEDOM.’

In our country’s founding document Freedom is listed as one of the foundational, self evident, divinely granted human rights…along side ‘The Pursuit of Happiness.’ We have since generally assumed that freedom and happiness are strongly correlated. But this is an assumption that is worth revisiting. Surely, slavery, communism and fascism impinge on personal happiness…but within the context of most western societies, does increased freedom actually increase happiness?

Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard College Professor of Psychology[2] says no.

In his excellent book Stumbling on Happiness[3] he cites a study in which students in a photography class produced a dozen black and white photographs and printed their two best and were allowed to keep one. The students were divided into two groups, 1) the escapable group and 2) the inescapable group. The first group could exchange their photograph for the other one at any time in the future and the second group had to make a final, irrevocable decision on which photograph they would keep. Then the researchers followed up on the students and ‘measured’[4] their satisfaction with the photographs. Which do you suppose were more satisfied? If our fundamental assumptions that self determination and increased options produce happiness are true, then we would expect the first group to be the most satisfied.[5] But the opposite was true.

“The escapable group liked their photographs less(emphasis original) than the inescapable group…Apparently, inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate this will happen. Our failure to anticipate that inescapability will trigger our psychological immune system (hence promote our happiness and satisfaction) can cause us to make
some painful mistakes…but most people seem to prefer more freedom to less…

...Our fetish for freedom leads us to patronize expensive department stores that allow us to return merchandise rather than attend auctions that don’t, to lease cars at a dramatic markup rather than buying them at a bargain, and so on…

...Committed owners attend to a car’s virtues and overlook its flaws, thus cooking the facts to produce a banquet of satisfaction, but the buyer for whom escape is still possible is likely to evaluate the new car more critically, paying special attention to its imperfections as she tries to decide whether to keep it…We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.”[6]

And this, in part, is why I believe marriage[7] is vastly underrated. Marriage is not exactly at the peak of its popularity, particularly among young men.[8] I believe that one of the fundamental reasons for marriage’s disrepute is this perception that limiting our freedom is the surest way to limit our happiness. It is ironic[9] that such a widely held tenet of our cultural narrative is based on a nearly universal misunderstanding of how our brains work.

But marriage only works if it is an ‘all in’ proposal. ‘For better or worse’ is the currency of marital satisfaction. It is the engine of contentment. According to Gilbert, inescapability is the catalyst of disproportionate focus on the admirable aspects of your selection. It is an unconscious building block of a life of gratitude. Our brains are wired in such a way that frequent re-evaluation undermines our happiness.

The volitional and intentional limitation of options is a counterintuitive path to happiness. In his theological work on marriage, Christopher Ash, argues that this is because marriage is the way of grace over works:

“When we focus on the gradually deepening (or evaporating) relational intimacy as the locus of marriage, paradoxically a terrible insecurity is engendered…To live outside is to live by works, to be constantly on our best behavior, to be only as good as the last time. To live inside (the covenant of marriage) is to live in grace, responding freely to unconditional pledged love, not to have failure and personal inadequacies drive us to paralyzing despair.”[10]

It is only when marriage is seen for what it truly was meant to be, that the Scriptures’ repeated comparison of marriage and the gospel begin to make sense. And, of course, the principal that limiting one’s freedom can actually augment one’s happiness has spiritual implications beyond marriage. A common objection to Christianity is that it limits our freedom and, thus, our potential for happiness. But, deconstructing the fundamental connection between freedom and happiness destabilizes this objection.

I think the Psalmist essentially articulates the same thing Gilbert reports when he says: “Yahweh, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”[11]

This post was written while listening to the Rise Against station on Pandora

[1] Or manipulating our passion for freedom, depending on one’s political perspective.
[2] At Harvard University.
[3] This is not nearly the saccharine self help book it sounds like. Rather, it is a well written and insightful review of recent psychological research on the phenomena of human happiness and why our brains are not particularly good at it (or, conversely, why we are sometimes better at it than the ‘facts’ warrant).
[4] So, I am what is called a ‘hard’ scientist. I realize that moniker is self serving, but if you are skeptical about how this was ‘measured,’ um, well, me too.
[5] In fact, this was another facet of this study. Several of the students were asked to predict if they would be more satisfied if they had the option to exchange and most said they would.
[6] Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness – p 183-5
[7] In its covenantal, vowish, form rather than its dissoluble social contract form.
[8] Chuck Klosterman has a great quote in Killing Yourself to Live that really encapsulates the contemporary perception of marriage. He seems genuinely confused at the controversy in the Episcopal Church about same-sex marriage and quips “In my opinion we must legalize gay marriage. Gay men are the only men in America who still want to be married.”
[9] Again, ironic in the Alanis Morissette ‘as it has come to be know’ usage of the word.
[10] Marriage: Sex in the Service of God p 74-5
[11] Ps 16:5-6


Matthew Pearson said...

I enjoyed this post, thanks. There's a lot more about the effect of the number of available choices on happiness in The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwarz (I read the book, but he also has a TED lecture available for free on their site). However, I would distinguish between "freedom" and the size of the choice set. When we talk about freedom as a social ideal, we (small-d democrats, but not Marxists) usually mean freedom from oppressive government, tyranny, unequal treatment under the law, violation of civil rights and liberties, etc. That doesn't necessarily guarantee a particular choice set. Our choice sets may be restricted by our budget (I'd like a new car but I can't afford it), technology (I'd like a flying car but it doesn't exist), or even ourselves (I have voluntarily limited my options for wives, or I sometimes arbitrarily limit my options when faced with an overwhelming number of choices). Freedom to choose from among the available options isn't the same thing as having a satisfactory number of options available. I'm not really saying that you confuse the two--because it's common enough for others to confuse them to make your point valid. I just think that what you describe is not idealizing freedom so much as it's making freedom something it's not.

The marriage example is interesting--it's sort of like what economists call an option value. Retirement is a good example. Deciding when to retire is a matter of maximizing the value of taking the option when I can only take it once. So each year I stay in the workforce my pension increases in value (good), but I lose a year of being retired (bad). When I'm young, the good outweighs the bad, so I continue to work, but when the values converge, the option value is at its maximum and I should retire. It's no violation of my freedom that I can't retire more than once, it's just the way the world works. Some see the marriage version of this as an injustice though, because when you choose to marry, you don't observe the options you're forgoing, because some of them you haven't met yet. So the decision is more complicated--you have to guess when the option value is greatest. Some worry so much about giving up the option to choose another partner that may come along later that they are too afraid to marry, but like you say, they may be irrationally giving up a lot of happiness to retain their option (interesting experiment that demonstrates this here:

Matthew Pearson said...

Finally, we social scientists also question the validity of subjective measures of well-being (see: and: However, the latest issue of Science may restore some confidence in these measures:

In your example though, it actually doesn't matter--all you need for valid inference in this case is the assumption that (1) there actually is some effect on well being, (2) that there is no *systematic* difference in the self-reports of the respective groups, and (3) that the samples are representative. They don't claim any cardinality of the happiness measurements, only that one group is happier. They could have framed this question just about any way they wanted--the scale doesn't matter, because they're just comparing the responses of the two groups. By the law of large numbers, the mean response of the representative samples is close (close enough, if the sample is big enough) to the mean of the population, so if one group reports a higher level of satisfaction on whatever scale they use, the result is either by chance (so we use the variance to try to establish some measure of statistical significance), or it reflects the true level of satisfaction. The only other option is that the groups are systematically different, but again, if the sample is big enough that's extremely unlikely.

You with us said...

Happy Anniversary, Stanford!

This was a good read to get ready for going away with Tyler to celebrate our 10th.

stanford said...

Hey Matthew,

Really interesting comments. I find the retirement correlary facinating. And I agree that there is a general lack of precision in my language about 'freedom'. Thanks for clearing it up.


Congratulations to you too. 10 years is a big deal. I am excited you will get to get away for it.