Home > Uncategorized > What a candy bar, porn, and 23 choices of jam have in common, and why they’re dangerous

What a candy bar, porn, and 23 choices of jam have in common, and why they’re dangerous

The problem with beauty is the problem with super stimuli. What’s that problem? That’s the subject of this post.

But first: What’s a super stimulus? The classic example is a candy bar. From LessWrong.com:

It contains more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in the ancestral environment. A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than anything that actually existed in the hunter-gatherer environment. The signal that once reliably correlated to healthy food has been hijacked, blotted out with a point in taste-space that wasn’t in the training dataset – an impossibly distant outlier on the old ancestral graphs. Tastiness, formerly representing the evolutionarily identified correlates of healthiness, has been reverse-engineered and perfectly matched with an artificial substance. Unfortunately there’s no equally powerful market incentive to make the resulting food item as healthy as it is tasty. We can’t taste healthfulness, after all.

The existence of the super stimuli is the problem. It’s the problem in candy bars and junk food. It’s the problem with impossible beauty in our ad-saturated world, and it’s the problem with porn.

Let’s be clear: The illusion is the problem, not the mere existence of delicious food or attractive people. Daniel Boorstin argued–decades ago–that society was increasingly subject to The Image, wherein images of things gradually displace the things themselves, and furthermore, wherein the boundaries between substance and image blur and become forgotten.

More choices (especially when some of those choices are super stimuli, I think) are not always good for us. According to some behavioral economics research, people are less satisfied when they have more choices: become “decision fatigued”, even though we usually think we want more choices.

There’s a classic experimental result showing that consumers would prefer having a great deal of choices of jam to choose from, but when they’re actually tested, in a 23-choices versus 6-choices condition, they end up more fatigued and less happy from having to so choose. That’s why, if you want to optimize happiness, when you have to buy a TV or other consumer good, you should either (i) just go with what you chose before, or (b) take the recommendation of a friend.

Here’s an other surprising area in which more options is not, in fact, better: according to research I’ve read (somewhere), men with more sex partners find it harder to be satisfied with a single woman for life. Another research finding is that online daters typically go out with fewer than 1 percent of profiles checked out, and yet other findings (I believe) indicate that the illusion of choice engendered by having hundreds of profiles to look at is correlated with lower dating satisfaction.

So where is the boundary between legitimate restriction of choices and lack of choices?–I don’t know. Sometimes we think we want things we don’t actually want. It should be viewed as a societal good–to be weighed against the societal goods from unfettered capitalism–to have fewer choices and fewer advertisements. Yet such a stance might be regarded by some as socialist (or whatever the favorite derogatory buzzword of the day is).

Obviously, the answer isn’t the opposite. The answer isn’t to settle for the first thing that seems perfect, because you’ll compare it with your other could-have-been options. So what is the answer? I don’t know: I’ve only begun thinking about it. And, optimistically perhaps, so have you.

But Here’s A Shot….

  • The answer is to be meticulous in separating out the substance from the image (where possible) and pursue only the substance.
  • The answer is to avoid the super stimulus as much as possible, and focus on the real thing.
  • The answer is to realize when having more choices–or the illusion of choice–is likely to be inoptimal (and what to do about it).

More specifically, I wonder if….

  • The answer is to learn to pick up chicks for real, rather than mope. (If you’re a straight man.)
  • The answer is to read real books instead of summaries or others’ thoughts about the books.
  • The answer is to enjoy friends’ company in real life, not on Facebook.
  • The answer is not to surround yourself with the products of a sick self-help industry. Nor is it even to read blog post after blog post about how to improve your life rather than actually take a thing to done and lock in some gains.
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