Evolving to become more miserable?

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark provides data on interest rates to show that Europeans gradually developed lower time preferences. In other words, they were more likely to delay gratification and plan for the future — paying back loans, for example. He also interprets data on wills as showing that most people of English descent today are the genetic legacy of the middle class, the poor and the aristocracy mostly having failed to reproduce themselves. That leaves us with a society where the average person maximizes their long-term material welfare much better than their counterparts would have in the Middle Ages or before. There appears to be somewhat of a drawback, though: doing so makes you more miserable over the long term.

John Tierney recently reviewed
a series of studies on how the intensity of guilt and regret change over time. Read the most recent article for free here, which contains five related studies. The journal article and Tierney’s write-up are brief and straightforward, so I own’t belabor the details here. Basically, in the short term, indulgence-driven guilt stings more than prudence-driven regret, and this motivates us toward virtuous behavior, such as delaying material gratification. In the long term, though, guilt has faded away and regret over missing out on life’s pleasures weighs more heavily on our mind.

Oddly, then, maximizing long-term material well-being minimizes long-term hedonic well-being. If the big shift to low time preferences was as recent as Clark suggests — during the Modern and especially Industrial period — then perhaps our brain’s pleasure or reward system hasn’t had enough time to rewire itself to make us feel warm and fuzzy about having saved, abstained, and done the prudent thing in the past. Rather, since all other human groups before the big change, and certainly other primate groups, had very high time preferences, the reward system is probably designed to make us feel happy as we pour over a mental photo album that’s stuffed with memories of irresponsible fun and indulgence.

Hey, no one ever said that changing the world and getting shit done was going to be emotionally uplifting.

I’d like to see follow-up studies focus on individual differences in how strongly they are motivated by guilt vs. regret. Most personality questionnaires measure something called excitement seeking or novelty seeking, as well as impulsiveness. We might predict that impulsive and excitement-seeking people are more motivated by avoiding regret than avoiding guilt, which leads them toward indulging more in the present. You could re-do all of the five studies in the article above, but using personality traits as predictor variables. If different parts of the brain light up when we feel guilt vs. regret, you could see if impulsive and excitement-seeking people showed greater responses to regret-based scenarios than guilt-based scenarios. (E.g., they read a story about someone else feeling these emotions, they reflect on an episode from their own lives, they see pictures of the faces of others expressing these emotions, and so on.)

On an applied level, if you suffer from “hyperopia” — planning to much for your material future — you can push yourself to indulge merely by reflecting on how you may in 20 years regret missing out on having fun now. If you remind yourself that “You’ll regret it if you don’t,” then you won’t find yourself sighing later on about that more exciting trip you should have taken your son on, that year of working in a more fulfilling city for less pay, or that student who made a pass at you that you should have slept with.

Labels: , ,


  1. “There appears to be somewhat of a drawback, though: doing so makes you more miserable over the long term.” 
    I think the cause and effect may be reversed. I person who worries about the state of the world may well be more likely to postpone gratification to prepare himself for future storms. “Eat drink and be merry” is not so much a philosophy derived from situation as from personality.

  2. I frequently have a guilt-like feeling over stupidity or akrasia I exhibited in the past. Maybe I’m not old enough to have regrets. 
    or that student who made a pass at you that you should have slept with. 
    Let’s hope the parents of your students and your employers don’t know about your blogging!

  3. person who worries about the state of the world 
    I don’t mean miserable in that sense — I mean someone who is plagued by lots of regrets.

  4. What about the early merchant adventurers and Spanish conquistadors? They combined adventure (and often early death) with the dream of fabulous riches. Sir Francis Drake I’m sure got his rewards both coming and going.

  5. Man, it’s just the opposite. In the modern world high future preference is related to greater well-being. More education = greater happiness. Lazy nations, groups, and people end up forfeiting their autonomy. Their lives are one giant downward spiral. 
    Winsome regret is one thing, a lifetime accumulation of high cortisol levels is quite another. 
    Consumption is related to well-being, it’s just that you have to be able to make a lot of money in order to have true discretionary income.

  6. Jason Malloy is correct. 
    Planning, employing self discipline, deferring or delaying gratification, controling impulses, laboring to educate yourself are admirable traits that eventually lead to less stress and less regrets in life. 
    As a retired senior I can truthfully say that everything I have of any value (and I don’t necessarily mean material things) took some sacrifice to obtain and to keep. The regrets were mostly things that I said or failed to say.

  7. Planning, employing self discipline, deferring or delaying gratification, controling impulses, laboring to educate yourself are admirable traits that eventually lead to less stress and less regrets in life. 
    Well they certainly don’t lead to less regrets — that’s the point of the studies reviewed. There’s no standard definition of what traits to include in a happiness index, but a feeling that you missed out on life’s pleasures seems appropriate.

  8. Agnostic 
    I understand your point, and you’re right. The studies indicate long-term regret and I should have read them prior to commenting.  
    Could it be that regret is simply a result of our genes in conflict with one another – a collision of competing interests? Regretting not sleeping with more women would seem to be fairly common and could be at the core of many of these complaints.

  9. Agnostic 
    I see your point and you’re right. The studies all show long-term regret. I should have read them before commenting. I apologize. 
    I have a hunch though that no matter how one lives his life – whether impulsively and hedonistically or by employing exemplary self control and restraint, there are always regrets. 
    Is it possible that regret is simply our genes in conflict with one another? Regretting not sleeping with more women, at least from a evolutionary basis, seems logical. Could that be at the core of many of these complaints?

  10. Perhaps I’d have to dig deeper into the literature being discussed, but the Tierney article doesn’t appear to get at the gestalt of the issue. Asking how much people wish they would have partied on college spring break seems like both a restricted range of both people and life. 
    I found a meta-analysis of regret studies which would seem to confirm that the highest-ranked regrets people feel in life are due to not being more disciplined about taking control of their social status. Here are the 12 issues people report feeling the most regret over. The number one ranked regret people report is education (32.2%), and the number two regret (which is similar to the first one) concerns career (22.3%). 
    So social status failures would appear to account for over half of the regrets people suffer. In contrast, leisure accounts for 2.5% of regrets. An order of a magnitude fewer people (seem to) say they wish they would have spent more time in life slacking off, than (seem to) say they wish they would have spent less time slacking off. 
    This just seems to fit. The most reliable way to secure happiness is to make money (that is money is one of the strongest correlates of subjective well-being), and making money takes discipline. 
    I would want to dig deeper to make firmer conclusions, but it certainly seems to fit that the nations, groups, and people that live with more discipline and forbearance lead the lives that inspire the most envy.

  11. One more thing, the article notes: “At some point there?s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life?s pleasures.” 
    I saw a distinction in the regret literature between wistful/nostalgic regret and depressive/agitating regret. It would seem the Tierney literature is speaking to the former kind of regret, while the regrets that people with high time preference feel are ultimately deeper, more psychologically intrusive, and more misery-inducing. 
    Low social status poisons everything. It kills marriages, destroys health. The spring break people have nothing on this kind of regret.

  12. I agree with Jason. Maybe people miss taking a trip or having a fling, but this is a one-time moment of regret. People who look back and think, I should have excercised, stopped smoking, or worked harder, are living their regret every day of their life.

  13. The royals did have problems producing. Henry the VIII went through 6 wives and ended up with 3 officially legitimate progeny (official at least at the time of birth) living past infancy. One of these, Edward VI, died in his teens, and we all know about Mary and Elizabeth. King Charles II, mid-17th c., had a dozen kids from his mistresses, mostly Nell Gwynn, ancestor of Princess Diana, but none from his wife, a Portugese princess. Successors, William & Mary, had no offspring. Their successor, Queen Anne, had 18 pregnancies of which only 5 lived past the age of two, one son lived only to die at 11.  
    OTOH, George III had about 15 kids with Queen Charlotte (he was one of the few kings never to have mistresses), of whom most all lived to grow up, but were so remarkably lacking in legitimate children from his sons that there was a crisis of succession in 1818, leading to a quickie marriage of one of the sons, and the birth of a single heir, Victoria. 
    Meanwhile, in the New England colonies, the middle classes were producing at a the rate of 10 children per woman, with a survival rate of 90%, incredible for that day and age.

  14. The regrets of college students and the regrets of average americans are a lot different as shown in Table 3 of the meta-analysis that Jason Malloy cites. This really weakens the argument that Tierney is making.  
    I don’t think asking people at their 40th reunion about their regrets is going to change things very much either. Looking back over 40 years, the risks of not studying over spring break or thanksgiving seem minimal, and the salience of good times with old friends is high. 
    Sometimes it is better not to party: 
    On the bus ride down to St. Paul to take the test that will help determine who will get ahead in life, who will stay put, and who will fall behind, two of my closest buddies seal their fates by opening pint bottles of cherry schnapps the moment we leave the high school parking lot. They hide the liquor under their varsity jackets and monitor the driver’s rearview mirror for opportune moments to duck their heads and swig. A girl sees what they’re up to, mutters, “Morons,” and goes back to shading in the tiny ovals in her Scholastic Aptitude Test review book. She dated one of the guys a few months back, but lately she’s grown serious, ambitious; I’ve heard that she hopes to practice law someday and prosecute companies that pollute the air. When she notices one of the bottles coming my way, she shoots me a look of horror.  
    That said, if at all possible, it is better to go to a high status college that de-emphasizes hard work in favor of good times and networking.

  15. Uhm…I took it like Agnostic. If you look at semi-hunter gather Amerinidians in Brazil they are always smiling and happy. I can not confirm this but I would suspect that they have low rates of depression. 
    Being poor is not psychologically more stressful than being well off if you don’t understand that you are poor. 
    Generation X in the States was known to be depressive, slackers, etc. You can look at the popular music of the early 1990′s, i.e. Nirvana. Most of these kids were middle class and were dropping Prozac like certs. 
    I would wager the suicide rate among Amazonian tribes is very extremely low. 
    Who is more happy at the end of life? The guy who has a nice nest egg, bad relations with his kids, grandkids that he barely knows, various chronic diseases, 30 pills to take every day, and bills to worry about, all types of plans to make? 
    Is this guy happier than the Amazonian Indian surrounded by all his family, no bills to worry about, etc. His only worry is being raided by another tribe and food.

  16. Longma, foragers certainly aren’t happy when they are transplanted into modern societies, which is where we are evaluating the subjective consequences of time-preference. 
    Similarly, low time preference (“hyperopia”) would not lead to good outcomes in the forager environment.

  17. I am haunted by a low-time-preference romantic regret which is nearly ten years old now!  
    In another thirty years, will I STILL be secretly pining for what might have been, in spite of a full and satisfying life? God-and-Darwin above, I hope not.  
    Note to self: GET OVER IT ALREADY!!!! 
    Am only mildly regretful about the occasional high time-preference decisions that turned out poorly. More on the order of “well, that was stupid; but I guess I learned something there.”  
    But those regrets don’t haunt me for a decade!  
    That being said, I’ve lead quite a low time preference sort of life overall, and can afford to look back with affectionate indulgence at my “wild” younger self:  
    Woot! You crazy girl, spending fifty dollars on ugly jeans! lol.

  18. Hey TGGP, I know just the feeling you’re talking about, where you cringe over and over at the memory of something IMPOSSIBLY retarded you said or wrote or did?  
    This too shall pass.  
    Eventually I realized that most people are so wrapped up in their own business that they hardly even notice what other people are doing or saying, and that even if they do talk smack about you, it’s merely for their own status-posturing benefit, not actually because they spend a lot of time pondering your idiocy. ;)  
    In other words, when people gossip about other people, they are mostly trying to tell you something important about themselves, not about the person they’re tearing into.

  19. It’s important to think about the genetic mechanisms that may have caused this evolution among europeans. It’s likely an increase in the percentage of people with the short form of the serotonin transporter gene. The short form is associated with increased neuroticism and a decreased ability to get over negative life events. On the other side, this increased fear of negativity also makes carriers more conscientious. So pretty much, low-time preference is just a fear of the future. A natural pessimism if you like which encourages these types to penny pinch and save for a rainy day.  
    On the other hand, high time preference types seem to have an overly optimistic attitude about the future. They wear rose colored glasses and seem to underestimate the potential downside of their actions. They live in the moment and extract a lot of joy out of life, only problem is their lack of planning means that sometimes, the total pie of joy shrinks over time. 
    Another thing to think about is how much of what we consider to be differences in intelligence is just really differences in personality preferences? THe question is, what if you have two kids with exactly the same potential, however one is low serotonin, while the other is high? Well, all else being equal, the low serotonin one will be more successful, simply due to conscientousness and fearfulness.  
    Have you ever wondered why depression is so common among highly successful people while not so much among the poor? Weird considering that the poor definitely have more negative life experiences.

  20. People who look back and think, I should have excercised, stopped smoking, or worked harder, are living their regret every day of their life. 
    “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” Too painfully true.

  21. The authors carried out a meta-analysis to evaluate the magnitude, shape, and modifiers of such an association. The search found 51 prevalence studies, five incidence studies, and four persistence studies meeting the criteria. [...] Results indicated that low-SES individuals had higher odds of being depressed (odds ratio = 1.81, p < 0.001), but the odds of a new episode (odds ratio = 1.24, p = 0.004) were lower than the odds of persisting depression (odds ratio = 2.06, p < 0.001). A dose-response relation was observed for education and income. Socioeconomic inequality in depression is heterogeneous and varies according to the way psychiatric disorder is measured, to the definition and measurement of SES, and to contextual features such as region and time. Nonetheless, the authors found compelling evidence for socioeconomic inequality in depression.