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

Next post: “Se­duced by Imag­i­na­tion

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