Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sadder but … Wiser

In Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999), Jon Elster notes two psychological assumptions we routinely hold: “that depressed people tend to believe that things are worse than they in fact are and that those in more exuberant moods tend to believe they are better.” Elster believes the second clause after the conjunction is valid, while the former clause “is probably wrong,” a conclusion based largely on “striking psychological findings over the past fifteen years:”
“[T]he only persons who are capable of taking an unbiased view of the world are the depressed. They are ‘sadder but wiser,” a research finding we can classify as “depressive realism” theory. While Elster characterizes the aforementioned experimental findings as “far from final,” he understandably sees them as robust, according them presumptive truth. Elster highlights some typical findings within this theory:
“In experiments designed to test subjects’ understanding of their control in situations with imperfect correlation between their responses and an observable outcome, non-depressives exhibit an ‘illusion of no control’ when the outcome is associated with failure. Furthermore, depressed subjects accurately assess their chances in dice-rolling experiments, whereas the non-depressed tend to overestimate their chances. Depressed subjects tend to be more evenhanded in the causal attribution of credit and blame, whereas non-depressives typically attribute negative events to other and positive events to their own intervention. Non-depressive subjects see themselves more positively than they do others with the same objective characteristics, whereas the depressed are not subject to this self-serving bias, nor to the opposite, self-deprecating bias. Depressed subjects have an accurate idea of how other people perceive them, whereas non-depressives exaggerate the good impression they make on others.”
Elster cautions us about attempting to derive any moral psychological imperatives from these research findings if only because “the depressed are not very motivated to do anything. The reason there is no sand in their machinery of action is that the engine is idling.” The rest of us have to “get on with the business of living,” in which case we accept that there will be “sand in the machinery,” which may or may not be the fault of the emotions, and thus it behooves us to accept that we act with something considerably less than an aspiration to “full cognitive rationality” (this does not mean we necessarily act in an irrational manner), thereby avoiding  “the cost of lacking anything we want to be rational about.”

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