Monday, September 26, 2016

Privileging our future hedonic states


As Parfit famously claims in Reasons and Persons, we would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished than that it is 1 hour long and about to start. If true, this claim means that our judgments about the value of future suffering are very different from our judgments about past suffering. But, surely past and future suffering have equal disvalue for our lives, and we should privilege the total amount of suffering in our judgments. Relying heavily on experimental data, I argue that our privileging of our own future hedonic states is peculiar, and poses a puzzle regarding the rationality of this deeply held way of thinking.


All data reported refer to paper-based surveys of undergraduate students at CSUS and Waikato (New Zealand). References to “we”, “our” etc. below technically apply only to the respondents. Only one scenario is presented per survey. All statistics cited are statistically significantly above 50% (roughly: I can say most people reported X with 95% confidence). Sample sizes range from 60-100.


We normally evaluate goods by privileging the quantity of the good, paying less attention to when the goods are received. Most would rather live a life with a 1-hour painful surgery (90%) than a 5-hour painful surgery (10%). Most think that a 54-year happy life (87%) is better than a 24-year happy life (13%). It’s simple: less suffering and more happiness is better. But note that contradicts our judgments about Parfit’s case, which is paraphrased below.
You must have a perfectly safe and effective surgery. You must be able to feel pain during, but you will be made to forget after. 
You have just woken up. The nurse says you may be the patient who had the operation yesterday (lasted 10 hours), or the patient who is to have the operation later today (lasting 1 hour). It is either true that you did suffer for 10 hours, or true that you shall suffer for 1 hour.

Which would you prefer to be true?
Most of us would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished (73%) than that it is 1 hour long and about to start (27%). Removing the “made to forget after” bit doesn’t make much of a difference (84% prefer 10 hours past to 1 hour future suffering).

We see a similar effect with another hedonic state: happy years. Waking up in hospital again, most people report preferring to hear that they have already lived 40 happy years, and would go on to live another 30 happy years (86%) when the other option was that they have lived 70 happy years and have 1 more happy year to go (14%).

So, when asked to make the judgment from the in-the-moment point of view (e.g., the case above and if you were asked about your future and past right now), most of us privilege future hedonic states over total hedonic states (otherwise we would have preferred to hear that our 1-hour painful surgery was later today).

Considering further cases reveals that it is our privileging of future hedonic states in the moment that is peculiar.

When a version of Parfit’s case is presented with the patient being someone you care about (like a relative) rather than yourself, most report preferring to hear that the patient will suffer 1 hour in the future (88%) rather than having already suffered for 10 hours in the past (12%).

Again, we see a similar effect with happy years. Most of us would rather hear that our long lost relative had lived for 70 happy years and had 1 more happy year to go (73%) than that they had lived for 40 happy years and had 30 more happy years to go (27%).

So, when making judgments about the lives of other people we care about, most of us privilege total hedonic states over future hedonic states.

Now consider a version of Parfit’s case in which the two lives differ most prominently in regards to success (as opposed to hedonic states). Most of us would prefer to hear that we had published 5 excellent books in the past and won’t publish any more (82%) than that we had published none in the past and would publish 1 in the future (18%).

So, when making judgments about (at least) one non-hedonic good, most of us privilege the total amount of that good over the future amount of that good.


Let’s sum up the findings to bring the puzzle into stark relief. Most of us privilege our future hedonic states when making in-the-moment judgments about our lives. But, in all of the other cases, we privilege the total amount of the good over the future amount of the good. (The other cases, again, were lives from the whole-life view, other people’s hedonic states from the in-the-moment view, and other goods (for us) from the in-the-moment view.

The contrast that makes this puzzle the most apparent comes from comparing our views on Parfit’s surgery case and the surgery case for someone you care about. Most of us really want our painful surgery to be in the past (84%), even if it was 10 times longer! But, most of us also want our relative’s painful surgery to be in the future (88%), precisely because it is 10 times shorter! These verdicts seem to be contradictory.

Is it possible that the rules of prudential value work differently for us than for others? That would be strange, since from most other people’s point of view, they make judgments in the same way (they would choose for themselves to have the surgery in the past, just like you would for yourself, but not for them!)

So, it seems that one of the judgments reported above must be wrong. Our privileging of our own future hedonic states from the in-the-moment point of view is the odd one out – but is that enough to conclude that it is the mistaken one?

Dan Weijers
School of Social Sciences
University of Waikato


  1. Dan, cool research and post, thanks a lot.

    When you say that we tend to privilege our own future hedonic states, I am betting that this holds true only when we are making judgments for ourselves at a particular point in time. But if we were given a choice of two lives to live, then I bet we revert to thinking in mostly quantitative terms. Is that right?

    I wonder if these results provide clues to how empathy works. If we distinguish between emotional and cognitive empathy, it seems like our tendency to answer the question about our loved ones in quantitative terms is due to system 1 processing: Lots of pain, bad. Less pain, good. It takes effort to put ourselves in another's shoes, even of a loved one, and that seems to be the critical step for producing the temporal bias. Indeed, the fact that we love them might make it difficult in this case since lots of pain to loved one, is even more bad.

    More generally, it seems to me that our emotional reactions are essentially other directed. People often say things like "I am so angry at myself," or "I need to learn to be more compassionate to myself," but I don't detect any psychological reality to that. Sometimes we say "Stop feeling sorry for yourself!" But I don't think we feel sorry for ourselves the way we feel sorry for others. To me feeling sorry for yourself is really just being sad or unhappy about something. If that's the case, I wonder if that can be part of the explanation for the temporal effect. We don't really have the capacity to respond emotionally to our own lives.

  2. Yep, right on the first point.

    And, very interesting on the empathy point. Maybe this kind of scenario could be used to test the type of degree of empathy some people have. I'm not totally sure about the system 1 stuff, though. I think we negatively react to bad stuff in proportion to the severity, likelihood, and predicted duration of it etc., but that this could apply to the past or future or total considered experience. The tricky bit is working out why we focus on the future instead of the total or past in some cases but not others. I get that there is an evolutionary account available to explain why we privilege future hedonic states, but that doesn't necessarily make it rational or prudential for us to endorse that privileging.

  3. I'm wondering if there is a way to interpret the data so that in fact we consistently privilege future hedonic states. Choosing to have had a past is really a very strange idea. So maybe all people are doing in the first case is choosing the best future, ignoring the past completely. And maybe in the case of choosing for a loved one, we simply assimilate this to a choice about our own future. A future in which we learn that our loved one suffers a lot feels worse to us than a future in which we learn that he suffers a little. Also, regarding my first point above, we could say that in fact we are privileging future hedonic states in this case, since we naturally think of the choice of one life or another as being in our future.

    Can you say something about why it might not be rational to privilege future hedonic states except in the context of weird philosophical thought experiments? The sunk cost fallacy seems to involve a failure to privilege the future over the past. A rational agent in economics will never do this. She will make decisions aimed at making the best possible future.

    1. Hi Randy, I agree with most of your first paragraph. If all of our evaluations are essentially forward-looking, and if when adopting the whole-life viewpoint we essentially put the whole life ahead of us, then we privilege total hedonic states. A couple of points on this: 1) it would be interesting to investigate the extent to which we would incur a cost to remove a past suffering (when asked in the moment). If we would pay a non-negligible amount, then it's unlikely that we JUST take a forward-looking view. This would open the puzzle back up somewhat. 2) I'm not sure that the surgery of a relative case fits your account well. It seems a bit strange to think that we evaluate our relatives situation from the point of view that we simulate their life from start to end. If we don't begin at the start of their life for this simulation, then when do we start? it seems arbitrary to say "sometime shortly before the potential long surgery". Anyway, I like the idea that we might be privileging future and total hedonic states in all cases. If it works, it is a very nice solution.

      On the rationality point: Bring up the sunk cost fallacy is great in this context - I appreciate the power of that point. The main reason to think that privileging our future hedonic states is irrational is that it contradicts a lot of other seemingly widely and firmly held views about what is better for a person. E.g., 80% of people might think that you should prefer the 1 hour surgery in the future, and yet you don't prefer that for yourself. Another possible reason that privileging our future hedonic states is irrational is that it has a clear evolutionary explanation (keep us doing things that tend to lead to survival and reproduction - the likely cause of our neural reward system). This doesn't make it irrational just yet, but if you believe that our considered views about what is best for others in the surgery case, or our considered views about what is best in a whole life are reasonable, then we can make a case for the irrationality. When we privilege our future hedonic states, we are heavily swayed by our evolved emotions, which do not have our best interests in mind - they have our genes best interest in mind (if you get my drift). When we privilege total hedonic states of others in the moment, or ourselves from a whole life point of view, we seem to be relying more on our hyper-evolved cognitive capacities - the same capacities that encourage us to save our money for our children's education rather than spend it on fine clothes to help us seduce as many mates as possible (more educated people tend to have less children). Neither of these arguments is close to being conclusive, and some of your earlier points can be understood to cast some doubt on them.

    2. Nice points. I think you are right that it would be interesting to find out what cost people would be willing to incur to remove a past suffering. I'm inclined to think it would be zero as long as we were assured that doing so had no significance for the future. (Clearly, eliminating the memory of harmful events, actual injuries associated with harmful events, etc. have future significance.)

      And I agree with Russell below that we often think better of ourselves for having experienced harms, since it becomes part of our story, and everyone wants to tell a story of how they triumphed over hardships. In fact, I bet lots of people would feel their lives have been too easy or boring would be willing to pay for that.

      In the end, though, the idea of eliminating (or tacking on) previous substantial harms without thereby unknowably affecting the kind of person we turn out to be may be too unrealistic to take seriously as a thought experiment.

  4. Very cool research and post indeed, Dan. Good to speak with you again, even if only virtually.

    The judgments about future suffering seem to be the odd one out (why privilege our own future hedonic states?), but there may be some reason for this. I don’t think such judgments are mistaken, just not fully explained.

    The explanation maybe has to do with our subjective apprehension of personal suffering.

    Our judgments vary when we are speaking of judgments about ‘impersonal’ suffering, whether in our past or in someone else’s life, and judgments about personal suffering. By “impersonal” here, I’m trying to capture the difference between something that we will not feel as opposed to something that we will feel. Even being told that we have felt suffering is not the same as being told that we will feel suffering. We may be told that we were the subject of suffering in the past, but we somehow stand removed from it, detached, as if it happened to someone else.

    One thing that seems to be relevant here is the distinction between identifying ourselves as our psychological selves and identifying ourselves as our physical selves (I don’t have Parfit in front of me to check the details of his thought experiment, so I’ll assume that we are told about past suffering but have no memory of it) and the common sense view (consistent with your study participants’ responses) is that we identify ourselves with our psychological selves. We have no recollection of the suffering (there are no lingering effects) and so it is as if it happened to someone else. (If it actually happened to us and we have memories of 10 hours of suffering and its lingering effects, we may feel and judge differently.)

    The future prediction of suffering is (1) about us (our psychological selves) and (2) about suffering. (1) may be part of the explanation. (2) may be the other missing link.

    I think it was Bernard Williams who said that there may be something prejudicial about mentioning “torture.” I said something similar to my students yesterday when I gave an example of “mercilessly torturing an innocent child” in attempting to get a reaction more consistent with moral realism. If we mention “torture” or “suffering” generally, it elicits a strong reaction because it taps into our real collection of past memories, the painful ones, and our deepest fears. We may be less rational—all the normal criteria for evaluating hedonic states go out the window as we are overwhelmed by the possibility of pain. Our apprehension of not just any run-of-the-mill hedonic state, but of suffering, seems to radically affect our judgments. We can be detached and rational when we make judgments about the suffering of others (it may not matter as much as you would think to compare the suffering of strangers to the suffering of loved ones, since suffering such as painful surgery is so bad that we wouldn't wish it on anyone), but not when we make judgments about our own future suffering (once we factor in (1) and (2), I wonder what explanatory role is played by being in the future).

    1. Hi Chong, thanks for your comments. Your last paragraph helps build a case for the irrationality of privileging future hedonic states, but only for the suffering type cases (e.g. the surgery). I mirrored the surgery cases with surveys about happy years, and they got very similar results (respondents preferred to have more happy years ahead of them than the biggest total of happy years, but more of them occurring in the past).

      I also think the personal/impersonal distinction could be useful. The version of the surgery case that did not stipulate that the pain of the surgery was later forgotten got a result similar to the case in which the pain was not later forgotten. But still, respondents might treat both instances as impersonal (since it didn't really happen to them). I wonder if I could construct a case that incorporates getting respondents to think about a painful (but not life-defining) moment in their past and ask them how much they'd pay to erase that from their life (verses how much they would pay to erase a future similar event). Maybe the event could be having the flue. The idea here being to make the past event more personal to them.

  5. Dan, I might be missing something. Less total suffering and more happiness is generally better, but does it matter that we tend to choose at the margin? In the moment, we want to hear that our surgery is over, rather than about to start, because of the felt tradeoffs and opportunity costs. It almost looks like taking the whole-life point of view, which is generally odd for us, is a way to screen these out.

    1. Hi Kyle, I'm not sure I understand the point. The whole life point of view is an odd view for us to take about our own lives, but we regularly apply it to the lives of other real and fictional people. Furthermore, philosophers who work on well-being tend to favor the whole life point of view - certainly the third person point of view.

      I did worry about the potential opportunity costs thing. I thin one of my more complex scenarios stipulated that you would be in the hospital for the same amount of time regardless of whether you had the long past surgery or the future short surgery.

  6. Dan,

    I am so glad you just can not stay away from the Dance…

    The one mistake you made in your post, I think, was implying that the prospect of writing a book in the future figures as a good thing, like "success." This is only conditionally true, I think. Speaking as someone who has gone through the experience in the past, I suspect many authors view a future book project like a future painful surgery. And I'm only partly kidding here. I sure as heck am glad that my first book is in the past, rather than in the future.

    But enough fun.

    The more substantive point I wanted to make is this. I think we might explain the difference between my own past pain, and hearing about the past or future pain of a relative, as follows.

    We do not want to contemplate the pain of relatives (at least, we do not want to contemplate the pain of beloved relatives…). But that's because even contemplating it is a form of (future) pain for us. Consider what happens if I learn that a beloved relative died in a crash. It makes me cringe more to hear that they suffered for 10 agonizing minutes that it makes me cringe to hear that they will suffer for 10 agonizing seconds.

    For myself, however, I actually don't mind hearing about my past pain, as long as I do not have to re-live it or remember it in some sense. There's a curious asymmetry here even: I might even think better of myself hearing that I made it through a lot of past pain, and endured it. And I think maybe it even leads me to exaggerate my past pain to some extent. It makes me think I'm tougher than I really am.

    Which explains why I said that stuff above about my book...

    1. Very interesting Russell! I like the idea that the pain of thinking about a relatives pain could be driving respondent's views in the relative's surgery case. This would mean, related to Randy's first post, that respondents are emotionally sympathetic, but not putting themselves into their relative's shoes, or trying to empathize in a meaningful way.

      I also ran a test asking respondent's to compare the lives of strangers (for the happy years case, not he surgery case) as well as long lost relatives. The results came out very similar. I'm not sure if you would count this result as supporting your explanation or not. We might also respond about strangers based mainly (or even solely) on wanting to minimize our own future pain (as we cringe at the thought of the suffering of a human being)... but that doesn't explain the popularity of "funniest" home videos in which people injure themselves (e.g., skateboarder's grind on the metal railing ending badly).