Surrogating on Happiness

My latest reading on “what is wrong with the human brain” is Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. The titular theme is that human beings are really bad at predicting what will make us happy. We imagine future events but leave out important details. You have the essence of the experience in mind but forget all the details that could mitigate it, leading us to over-estimate how good the good will be and how bad the bad will be.

The author’s recommended solution, which he does not expect most to take, is to use surrogates. On average, you will better predict how much you will enjoy X if I tell you how much some random person enjoyed X than if I tell you what X is. The odds are better that your brain will miss something important than that this random person is much different from you on an important variable. It is also known that the average person thinks he is different from average for most important variables, so this means you.

Apply this for a moment. You have been following that MMO’s development for years, listening to developers, getting all the details, and on that basis you will probably have a worse estimate of how much you will enjoy it than if you just tried to get a sense of how the playerbase feels as it launches, worse than if you just asked a random player/tester how much fun s/he had. If you consider the pre-game anticipation part of the fun, go to, but consider it a separate form of entertainment rather than useful information-gathering.

Of course, as an MMO player, you are in a niche market. You can improve your enjoyment estimates by narrowing the range of potential players over whom you are seeking a random or average estimate. But remember to stick to that principle or at least keep track of how often you get burned when you veer from it: if you usually like what Ravious likes, and Ravious says he likes/hates X, you can rationally make a buying decision based solely on that. I am happy to take movie recommendations from a few reviewers who I know to have similar tastes, and Roger Ebert will usually know before I do whether I will enjoy a film.

: Zubon

I grant that Bhagpuss is a unique snowflake whose preferences will differ on the important variables.

6 thoughts on “Surrogating on Happiness

  1. Andrew

    I’m a big fan of books about “what is wrong with the human brain”. If you enjoyed Stumbling on Happiness, you might also like:
    Jonah Lehrer – How We Decide
    Norman Doidge – The Brain That Changes
    Lewis Wolpert – Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
    Jeffrey S. Rosenthal – Struck By Lightning
    Gregory Burns – Iconoclast
    Joseph T. Halinan – Why We Make Mistakes
    Dan Gardner – Risk

  2. Syncaine

    Isn’t the ‘solution’ here “Don’t buy the hype”? Especially considering the job of an MMO marketing team is to sell you the hype?

    Now maybe that’s the point, that MOST people won’t be able to filter the hype well enough to not create unreasonable expectations, but I’d say it’s pretty possible to follow an MMO pre-release, know all the info released, and still come to a rationale conclusion by filtering the facts from the hype.

    1. Zubon Post author

      The issue of hype would be heaped on top. Alas, the experimental tests used matters even simpler such as eating potato chips or, critically important for MMO players, how happy you would be about receiving a moderate reward after repeating a tedious task for a while.

      The book abounds with examples of comparing how much people think they will enjoy (or dislike) something, how much people enjoy something at the time, and how much they remember enjoying it afterwards. Humans are not great at predicting, and remembered enjoyment is frequently (and distressingly) closer to predicted than actual. That is, you predict tomorrow will be an 8 on a scale of 1-10, I ask you tomorrow and you tell me the day is a 5, and next week you remember it as a 7.

      So maybe the key is to buy into all of the hype, really get your hopes up, have whatever experience you have, then hallucinate that it was as good as you predicted it would be. Winning?

      1. yunk

        I read about some studies that show when people do change their opinion, they are more likely to report their new opinion was their opinion all along. They don’t even remember changing it.

        Which is why, if you conduct the survey afterwards, asking someone “where WERE you from 1 to 10 on issue X” and also “where ARE you …” you get similar results, but if you ask them at different points, you get different results. This was in the context of college class evaluations, where “issue X” would be whatever issue the professor wanted to teach.

  3. yunk

    This may be where lots of marketing is going. Amazon’s “people that enjoy things you like also like this new product” only gets more accurate the more you and everyone else ranks everything they consume. Of course that is rather limited, some Bayesian AI that looks at everything you also write and everything on social networking sites about you can be even more accurate. Someday.

    This is good for small producers. Whether it’s music, books, games, or anything. Since it can help them get noticed by a wider audience than they might normally attract.

    Plus it’s good for consumers. Instead of relying on marketing materials, relying on surrogates. The whole “put all that info on the net” is scary for us old farts though.

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