Sunday, October 24, 2010
Life, Death, and Procrastination
The recent book review in the New Yorker of the book The Thief of Time starts with the arresting story of a Nobel prize-winning economist who can't seem to get it together to mail a box of clothes from India, where he is living, to the United States. He just puts it off and puts if off. He never gets it done. Finally someone helps him out by bringing it back with him.
Nobel prize-winners: they're just like us!
The book is about the philosophy of procrastination, a phenomenon that cries out for some philosophical reflection if ever there was one. As the reviewer, James Surowiecki, explains, procrastination is puzzling in part because it involves "not doing what you think you should be doing" -- an idea that is confusing in itself.
Socrates thought it was impossible not to do what you thought you should be doing. That is, if you chose to do something, it was because you thought it was the best thing to be doing overall. If that thing seemed ultimately boneheaded -- like failing to mail the box day after day -- that wasn't because you failed to do what you thought you ought to do, it was because you were mistaken about what you ought to have done. You must have thought it was best not to mail the box, since you didn't. And you might have made a mistake in your thinking about what was best to do. But that's not the same as failing to do what you did think was best. Which is what Socrates thought was impossible.
It's a powerfully counter-intuitive conclusion. Because it sure feels like what you're doing when you procrastinate is failing to do what you think you ought to do. And yet it's not like procrastinating makes you feel better, like you're having a better time. Usually it makes you feel worse. So WTF is going on?
One way to understand procrastination is through its relation to what is called "hyperbolic discounting," which is basically the tendency we have to put off painful experiences and fail to wait properly for pleasurable ones. We are biased toward the present. An hour at the dentist today, or two hours at the dentist in a few months? We put it off. Get 100 dollars in a year, or 110 in a year and a day, we choose to wait for 110. But choosing between 100 dollars today and 110 tomorrow? We want 100 dollars now.
I've always thought hyperbolic discounting and procrastination must have something to do with mortality. I always thought if someone asked me, "Why put off going to the dentist, when you know you're going to have to?" that part of any honest answer would have to be "Well, maybe I'll die before I have to go." Hey, it's always possible.
Of course, the fact that you might die before you have to do some unpleasant thing, or before you get a chance to enjoy some far off benefit, does make some "discounting" absolutely rational, and not puzzling at all. If you could factor the likelihood of death into your calculation, you could come up with some way of knowing just how much putting things off and just how much impulsivity makes sense.
What makes "hyberbolic discounting" a kind of irrationality isn't that you are biased toward the present; it's that you're way too biased toward the present. That is, for most of us, the odds of dying before the root canal are so slim that it makes no sense at all to put it off. So to make sense of our reasoning procedure in this direction, we'd have to assume that most people are dramatically inaccurately assessing the likelihood of their own deaths.
But now we get to the very weirdest thing of all about understanding hyperbolic discounting this way: it suggests that we err on the side of death. That is, our choices make sense only under the assumption that our immanent death is much more likely than it actually is.
This strikes me as extremely strange. Because if most people err in thinking about their own deaths, it's to assume they're never going to happen, or that they're way way far in the future. They don't err on the side of thinking they're going to die.
This means one of two things must be true. Either the way we deal with our own mortality is so strange that we can psychologically overestimate its likelihood and underestimate its likelihood at the same time, or, contrary to what I'd thought, hyperbolic discounting and procrastination have nothing to do with mortality and the possibility of death.
Both are weird. It's weird to think that underneath it all, and despite our appearance of obliviousness, we have our own mortality frequently present to mind. But it's also weird to think that putting things off is something that an immortal being would have trouble with.
Or maybe I just think that because when I think of immortal beings I think of gods. Maybe you can be immortal and a procrastinator. It's funny to think of the new post-humans, god-like, unable to feel pain, living forever, but unable to get their shit together to get their boxes to the post-office, to buy birthday presents on time, and to file their income taxes.