Justified Expectation of Pleasant Surprises

I recently tried playing a computer game that made a major fun-theoretic error. (At least I strongly suspect it’s an error, though they are game designers and I am not.)

The game showed me—right from the start of play—what abilities I could purchase as I increased in level. Worse, there were many different choices; still worse, you had to pay a cost in fungible points to acquire them, making you feel like you were losing a resource… But today, I’d just like to focus on the problem of telling me, right at the start of the game, about all the nice things that might happen to me later.

I can’t think of a good experimental result that backs this up; but I’d expect that a pleasant surprise would have a greater hedonic impact, than being told about the same gift in advance. Sure, the moment you were first told about the gift would be good news, a moment of pleasure in the moment of being told. But you wouldn’t have the gift in hand at that moment, which limits the pleasure. And then you have to wait. And then when you finally get the gift—it’s pleasant to go from not having it to having it, if you didn’t wait too long; but a surprise would have a larger momentary impact, I would think.

This particular game had a status screen that showed all my future class abilities at the start of the game—inactive and dark but with full information still displayed. From a hedonic standpoint this seems like miserable fun theory. All the “good news” is lumped into a gigantic package; the items of news would have much greater impact if encountered separately. And then I have to wait a long time to actually acquire the abilities, so I get an extended period of comparing my current weak game-self to all the wonderful abilities I could have but don’t.

Imagine living in two possible worlds. Both worlds are otherwise rich in challenge, novelty, and other aspects of Fun. In both worlds, you get smarter with age and acquire more abilities over time, so that your life is always getting better.

But in one world, the abilities that come with seniority are openly discussed, hence widely known; you know what you have to look forward to.

In the other world, anyone older than you will refuse to talk about certain aspects of growing up; you’ll just have to wait and find out.

I ask you to contemplate—not just which world you might prefer to live in—but how much you might want to live in the second world, rather than the first. I would even say that the second world seems more alive; when I imagine living there, my imagined will to live feels stronger. I’ve got to stay alive to find out what happens next, right?

The idea that hope is important to a happy life, is hardly original with me—though I think it might not be emphasized quite enough, on the lists of things people are told they need.

I don’t agree with buying lottery tickets, but I do think I understand why people do it. I remember the times in my life when I had more or less belief that things would improve—that they were heading up in the near-term or mid-term, close enough to anticipate. I’m having trouble describing how much of a difference it makes. Maybe I don’t need to describe that difference, unless some of my readers have never had any light at the end of their tunnels, or some of my readers have never looked forward and seen darkness.

If existential angst comes from having at least one deep problem in your life that you aren’t thinking about explicitly, so that the pain which comes from it seems like a natural permanent feature—then the very first question I’d ask, to identify a possible source of that problem, would be, “Do you expect your life to improve in the near or mid-term future?”

Sometimes I meet people who’ve been run over by life, in much the same way as being run over by a truck. Grand catastrophe isn’t necessary to destroy a will to live. The extended absence of hope leaves the same sort of wreckage.

People need hope. I’m not the first to say it.

But I think that the importance of vague hope is underemphasized.

“Vague” is usually not a compliment among rationalists. Hear “vague hopes” and you immediately think of, say, an alternative medicine herbal profusion whose touted benefits are so conveniently unobservable (not to mention experimentally unverified) that people will buy it for anything and then refuse to admit it didn’t work. You think of poorly worked-out plans with missing steps, or supernatural prophecies made carefully unfalsifiable, or fantasies of unearned riches, or...

But you know, generally speaking, our beliefs about the future should be vaguer than our beliefs about the past. We just know less about tomorrow than we do about yesterday.

There are plenty of bad reasons to be vague, all sorts of suspicious reasons to offer nonspecific predictions, but reversed stupidity is not intelligence: When you’ve eliminated all the ulterior motives for vagueness, your beliefs about the future should still be vague.

We don’t know much about the future; let’s hope that doesn’t change for as long as human emotions stay what they are. Of all the poisoned gifts a big mind could give a small one, a walkthrough for the game has to be near the top of the list.

What we need to maintain our interest in life, is a justified expectation of pleasant surprises. (And yes, you can expect a surprise if you’re not logically omniscient.) This excludes the herbal profusions, the poorly worked-out plans, and the supernatural. The best reason for this justified expectation is experience, that is, being pleasantly surprised on a frequent yet irregular basis. (If this isn’t happening to you, please file a bug report with the appropriate authorities.)

Vague justifications for believing in a pleasant specific outcome would be the opposite.

There’s also other dangers of having pleasant hopes that are too specific—even if justified, though more often they aren’t—and I plan to talk about that in the next post.

Part of The Fun Theory Sequence

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