Archive for August, 2011

Example 1:  Religious folks say “Divorce is a sin.  It’s not part of god’s plan.”  etc.   Then, when someone gets divorced, they are criticized, judged and/or shunned.  This contributes to kids from divorced families not doing as well.  These data are then used as proof that “god’s plan” is best.

Example 2:  Teens are told “Sex before marriage is bad.  The bible says to wait until marriage.”  Then, when these teens have sex, they feel dirty, guilty, impure.  People then say “see, you had sex and you feel bad. You should follow god’s plan.”

Example 3:  People are told that homosexuality is a sin.  This results in gay people not feeling good about who they are.  They might end up depressed or suicidal.  This is used as evidence that homosexuality is wrong:  “they wouldn’t have been depressed if they had followed god’s plan.”

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Some research suggests that people are happier when they have fewer choices (less opportunity for second guessing and regret). For example, see these TED talks.

I think what happens is that whatever it is that we cannot change about our circumstances gets internalized (perhaps subconsciously — see anterograde amnesia paintings experiment) and sets the baseline.   People living in a poor neighborhood with few career opportunities aren’t comparing themselves to Bill Gates and feeling unhappy.  I suspect that they’re comparing themselves to:  (1) themselves in the recent past; (2) their counterfactual selves, living in the same circumstances, who could have made different decisions; (3) their peers (friends/family).  Even people who are abused, oppressed or starving might report being happy.  The key is for those conditions to feel fixed.  If you have always had a place to live but suddenly find yourself homeless, you will probably be quite unhappy for a while (until you’ve been homeless long enough where you have internalized it).

Robustness of subjective well being has benefits.  From a fitness perspective, the ability to feel happy in a wide variety of living conditions gives one more motivation to survive and reproduce.  For example, if someone who lived in very difficult conditions was unhappy, they might not want to bring new people into this world.  Feeling happy, regardless of circumstances, causes one to feel like ‘life is good’ and want to create more life and continue living.  And of course, people would rather be happy, so it benefits people to have this robust ability.

Someone might ask “as long as people feel happy, isn’t that all that matters?”  Not if our subjective well being mechanism is flawed.    The person who has been homeless for years might feel happy (because subjective well being is relative to your own baseline), but they might have been much happier (higher baseline) if circumstances had been different.

If people feel happy even in oppressive conditions, they might be less likely to fight for change.  Similarly, economically privileged folks who see that poor people smile might be less likely to care about disparity.

Thus, while happiness data are useful, the robustness of happiness is a short-sighted adaptation.

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“Heritability is the proportion of phenotypic variation in a population that is due to genetic variation between individuals.” -wikipedia

Not all genetic variation is inherited.  We used to think that essentially genotype=phenotype (i.e., having a gene meant you had whatever trait goes along with it).  But now we know that all kinds of more complicated stuff is going on that determines whether genes are activated.  So, there isn’t the direct correspondence between genes and proteins like we previously thought.

Further, heritability is typically estimated from twin studies, by comparing DZ and MZ twins.   However, MZ twins likely have a more similar environment than do DZ twins.  MZ twins often share a placenta.  In addition, I have observed that they are often treated differently than DZ twins.  For example, I suspect it’s more common to dress MZ twins alike, to assume they like the same things, etc.  MZ twins also look more alike, and there is no doubt that appearance affects how people are treated.  If it’s true that MZ twins are treated more similarly than DZ twins, we might expect estimates of heritability to increase with age, which is exactly what we find in practice.

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