An Anomaly?

A while ago Bryan Caplan, drawing on Epicurus, argued that we know that almost everybody gets positive utility out of life because the vast majority of people choose not to kill themselves (and the expected utility of being dead is zero*). The underlying assumption, which many people would say is true by definition, is that people maximize their ex ante utility.

My wild guess is that this is the one single case in which people do not necessarily maximize their ex ante utility. I think people have a strong tendency to cling onto their lives even if they experience negative utility and expect this state of things to continue. This would make perfect evolutionary sense: Killing yourself decreases your expected inclusive fitness. (Good sentence!)

Maybe I'm wrong; I know of no research that has something to say about the veracity of this claim. In fact, I can't think up a good research design to test for this. A first step might be to change the scales used to assess people's happiness from unipolar (e.g., 0 to 10) to bipolar (e.g., -5 to 5), which should be done anyway.

*This isn't necessarily true for people who believe in an afterlife, but my argument applies even to people who are subjectively certain that there's no such thing.

1 comment:

John Althouse Cohen said...

This also leaves out the fact that people might believe in an afterlife, and that they might be concerned about hurting their loved ones.

Also, what about the possibility that people consistently experience more unhappiness than happiness, but they're wildly optimistic about the future (i.e. systematically deceiving themselves)?