wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness

About fifty years ago a Pygmy named Kenge took his first trip out of the dense, tropical forests of Africa and onto the open plains in the company of an anthropologist. Buffalo appeared in the distance—small black specks against a bleached sky—and the Pygmy surveyed them curiously. Finally, he turned to the anthropologist and asked what kind of insects they were. 'When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies.' The anthropologist wasn't stupid and he hadn't lied. Rather, because Kenge had lived his entire life in a dense jungle that offered no views of the horizon, he had failed to learn what most of us take for granted, namely, that things look different when they are far away. You and I don't mix up our insects and our ungulates because we are used to looking out across vast expanses, and we learned early on that objects make smaller images on our retinas when they are distant than when they are nearby. How do our brains know whether a small retinal image is being made by a small object that is nearby or a large object that is distant? Details, details, details! Our brains know that the surfaces of nearby objects afford fine-grained details that blur and blend as the object recedes into the distance, and thus they use the level of detail that we can see to estimate the distance between our eye and the object. If the small retinal image is detailed—we can see the fine hairs on a mosquito's head and the cellophane texture of its wings—our brains assume that the object is about an inch from our eye. If the small retinal image is not detailed—we can see only the vague contour and shadowless form of the buffalo's body—our brains assume that the object is a few thousand yards away.

Just as objects that are near to us in space appear to be more detailed than those that are far away, so do events that are near to us in time. Whereas the near future is finely detailed, the far future is blurry and smooth. For example, when young couples are asked to say what they think of when they envision 'getting married,' those couples who are a month away from the event (either because they are getting married a month later or because they got married a month earlier) envision marriage in a fairly abstract and blurry way, and they offer high-level descriptions such as 'making a serious commitment' or 'making a mistake.' But couples who are getting married the next day envision marriage's concrete details, offering descriptions such as 'having pictures made' or 'wearing a special outfit.' Similarly, when volunteers are asked to imagine themselves locking a door the next day, they describe their mental images with detailed phrases such as 'putting a key in the lock,' but when volunteers are asked to imagine themselves locking a door next year, they describe their mental images with vague phrases such as 'securing the house.' When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.

Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons. When we perceive a distant buffalo, our brains are aware of the fact that the buffalo looks smooth, vague, and lacking in detail because it is far away, and they do not mistakenly conclude that the buffalo itself is smooth and vague. But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives? We all do this, of course. We agree to babysit the nephews and nieces next month, and we look forward to that obligation even as we jot it in our diary. Then, when it actually comes time to buy the Happy Meals, set up the Barbie playset, hide the bong, and ignore the fact that the NBA playoffs are on at one o'clock, we wonder what we were thinking when we said yes. Well, here's what we were thinking: When we said yes we were thinking about babysitting in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the fact that the detail-free babysitting we were imagining would not be the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience. Babysitting next month is 'an act of love,' whereas babysitting right now is 'an act of lunch,' and expressing affection is spiritually rewarding in a way that buying French fries simply isn't.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that the gritty details of babysitting that are so salient to us as we execute them were not part of our mental image of babysitting when we imagined it a month earlier, but what is surprising is how surprised we are when those details finally come into view. Distant babysitting has the same illusory smoothness that a distant cornfield does, but while we all know that a cornfield isn't really smooth and that it just looks that way from a far remove, we seem only dimly aware of the same fact when it comes to events that are far away in time. When volunteers are asked to 'imagine a good day,' they imagine a greater variety of events if the good day is tomorrow than if the good day is a year later. Because a good day tomorrow is imagined in considerable detail, it turns out to be a lumpy mixture of mostly good stuff ('I'll sleep late, read the paper, go to the movies, and see my best friend') with a few unpleasant chunks ('But I guess I'll also have to rake the stupid leaves'). On the other hand, a good day next year is imagined as a smooth puree of happy episodes. What's more, when people are asked how realistic they think these mental images of the near and far future are, they claim that the smooth puree of next year is every bit as realistic as the lumpy stew of tomorrow. In some sense, we are like pilots who land our planes and are genuinely shocked to discover that the cornfields that looked like smooth, yellow rectangles from the air are actually filled with—of all things—corn! Perception, imagination, and memory are remarkable abilities that have a good deal in common, but in at least one way, perception is the wisest of the triplets. We rarely mistake a distant buffalo for a nearby insect, but when the horizon is temporal rather than spatial, we tend to make the same mistake that Pygmies do.

The fact that we imagine the near and far futures with such different textures causes us to value them differently as well. Most of us would pay more to see a Broadway show tonight or to eat an apple pie this afternoon than we would if the same ticket and the same pie were to be delivered to us next month. There is nothing irrational about this. Delays are painful, and it makes sense to demand a discount if one must endure them. But studies show that when people imagine the pain of waiting, they imagine that it will be worse if it happens in the near future than in the far future, and this leads to some rather odd behavior. For example, most people would rather receive $20 in a year than $19 in 364 days because a one-day delay that takes place in the far future looks (from here) to be a minor inconvenience. On the other hand, most people would rather receive $19 today than $20 tomorrow because a one-day delay that takes place in the near future looks (from here) to be an unbearable torment. Whatever amount of pain a one-day wait entails, that pain is surely the same whenever it is experienced; and yet, people imagine a near-future pain as so severe that they will gladly pay a dollar to avoid it, but a far-future pain as so mild that they will gladly accept a dollar to endure it.

Why does this happen? The vivid detail of the near future makes it much more palpable than the far future, thus we feel more anxious and excited when we imagine events that will take place soon than when we imagine events that will take place later. Indeed, studies show that the parts of the brain that are primarily responsible for generating feelings of pleasurable excitement become active when people imagine receiving a reward such as money in the near future but not when they imagine receiving the same reward in the far future.