I went through a long showdown with tendonitis of the hamstring.  At its worst it was a constant source of discomfort that occupied at least a fraction of my attention at all times.  I knew that I had to heal before I would get back my to usual smiling happy self.  So I worked hard, stretching, walking, running: rehabilitating.

My hamstring doesn’t bother me much anymore.  But you know what?  Now that it no longer dominates the focus of my attention, I am reminded that my back hurts, as it always has.  But I had completely forgotten about that for the last year or so because during that time it didn’t hurt.

So I am not the content, distraction-free person I expected to be.  Now that I have solved the hamstring problem my current distractions draw my attention to the next health-related job:  keep my back strong, flexible, and pain-free.

This is a version of the focusing illusion.  People are motivated by expected psychological rewards that never come.  The classic story is moving to California.  People in Michigan declare that they would be much happier if they lived in California, but as it turns out people in California just about as miserable as people who still live in Michigan.

Pain and pleasure make up the compensation package in Nature’s incentive scheme.  Our attention is focused on what needs to be done using the lure of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  And if it feels like she is repeatedly moving the goal posts, that may be all part of the plan according to a new paper by Arthur Robson and Larry Samuelson.

They model the way evolution shapes our preferences based on two constraints: a) there’s a limit to how happy or unhappy we can be and b) emotional states are noisy.  Emotions will evolve into an optimal mechanism for guiding us to the best decisions.  Following the pioneering research of Luis Rayo and Gary Becker,  they show that the most effective way to motivate us within these constraints is to use extreme rewards and penalties.  If we meet the target, even by just a little, we are maximally happy.  If we fall short, we are miserable.

This is the seed of a focussing illusion.  Because after I heal my hamstring Nature again needs the full range of emotions to motivate me to take care of my back.  So after the briefest period of relief, she quickly resets me back to zero, threatening once again misery if I don’t attend to the next item on the list. If I move to California, I enjoy a fleeting glimpse of my sought-after paradise before she re-calibrates my utility function, so that now I have to learn to surf before she’ll give me another taste.


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