I Just Wanna See His Face

I earlier wrote (footnote omitted):

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.

Now I finally got round to reading the 2005 overview article on neuroeconomics by Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Drazen Prelec. They write (p. 37, emphases mine):
Economists usually view behavior as a search for pleasure (or, equivalently, escape from pain). The subfield of welfare economics, and the entire ability of economists to make normative statements, is premised on the idea that giving people what they want makes them better off. But, there is considerable evidence from neuroscience and other areas of psychology that the motivation to take an action is not always closely tied to hedonic consequences.

Berridge (1996) argues that decision making involves the interaction of two separate, though overlapping systems, one responsible for pleasure and pain (the “liking” system), and the other for motivation (the “wanting” system). This challenges the fundamental supposition in economics that one only strives to obtain what one likes. [...]

Berridge believes that the later stages of many drug addictions presents prototypical examples of situations of what he terms “wanting” without “liking”; drug addicts often report an absence of pleasure from taking the drugs they are addicted to, coupled with an irresistible motivation to do so. Other examples of situations in which there often seems to be a disconnect between one’s motivation to obtain something and the pleasure one is likely to derive from it are sex and curiosity (Loewenstein 1994). Thus, for example, you can be powerfully motivated to seek out information, even when you are quite certain that it will make you miserable [...]

Economics proceeds on the assumption that satisfying people’s wants is a good thing. This assumption depends on knowing that people will like what they want. If likes and wants diverge, this would pose a fundamental challenge to standard welfare economics. Presumably welfare should be based on “liking”.

This has potential consequences not only for moral philosophical armchair theorizing, but also for policy choice. Based on the view outlined in the quote, you might want to make the case for (more) regulation. Ceteris paribus, the better your knowledge of the details is, the stronger your case is going to be.

Oh, "I Just Wanna See His Face" is a 1972 Rolling Stones song about jealousy.

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