A Clear and Presentist Danger

Harvard University professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert recently published Stumbling on Happiness, an informative look at how the human brain works, or, more specifically, how well (or rather, poorly) the brain predicts which future occurrences will make us happy. Since its hardcover release in May 2006, the book has been a strong seller due to its fascinating topic, strong and accessible writing, and quirky (frequently goofball) examples used to illustrate difficult points of human psychology. The book is scheduled to be released in paperback this week.

Gilbert argues that one of the reasons our mind has a difficult time predicting what will make us happy in the future is that old historians’ foe: presentism. Specifically, in order to predict how current decisions will affect future happiness, our brain holds all other things constant—our current feelings about people, places, and things—and projects them into the future, in the hopes of grasping how we will feel and react to the decision at that time. This is a clumsy way to predict future happiness, if human history is any indication. To bolster his case, Gilbert cites those other experts on presentism: historians. He writes, “Historians use the word presentism to describe the tendency to judge historical figures by contemporary standards. . . . the temptation to view the past through the lens of the present is nothing short of overwhelming.” He laments with then-AHA President Lynn Hunt, writing in the May 2002 issue of Perspectives, who said “presentism admits of no ready solution; it turns out to be very difficult to exit from modernity,” and adds:

The good news is that most of us aren’t historians and thus we don’t have to worry about finding that particular exit. The bad news is that all of us are futurians, and presentism is an even bigger problem when people look forward rather than backward. Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present. The way we feel right now (“I’m so hungry”) and the way we think right now (“The big speakers sound better than the little ones”) exert an unusually strong influence on the way we think we’ll feel later. Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today. The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagination in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes. Stumbling on Happiness, pp 146-47. [emphasis in original]

Interdisciplinarity at its finest.

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