Tag Archives: probability

Romance is magical

People seem to generally believe they have high romantic standards, and that they aren’t strongly influenced by things like looks, status and money. Research says our standards aren’t that high, that they drop if the standard available drops for a single evening, and that superficial factors make more of a difference than we think. Our beliefs about what we want are wrong. It’s not an obscure topic though; the evidence should be in front of us. How do we avoid noticing? We’re pretty good at not noticing things we don’t want to – we can probably do it unaided. Here there is a consistent pattern though.

Consider the hypothesis that there is approximately one man in the world for me. I meet someone who appears to be him within a month of looking. This is not uncommon, though it has a one in many million chance of happening under my hypothesis, if I look insanely hard. This should make me doubt my hypothesis in favor of one where there are several, or many million men in the world for me. What do I really do? Feel that since something so unlikely (under the usual laws of chance) occurred it must be a sign that we were really meant for each other, that the universe is looking out for us, that fate found us deserving, or whatever. Magic is a nice addition to the theory, as it was what we wanted in the relationship anyway. Romantic magic and there being a Mr Right are complimentary beliefs, so meeting someone nice confirms the idea that there was exactly one perfect man in the world rather than suggesting it’s absurd.

I can’t tell how serious anyone is about this, but ubiquitously when people happen to meet the girl of their dreams on a bus where they were the only English speaking people they put it down to fate, rather than radically lowered expectations. When they marry someone from the same small town they say they were put there for each other. When their partner, chosen on grounds of intellectual qualities, happens to also be rich and handsome their friends remark at how fortune has smiled on them. When people hook up with anyone at all they tell everyone around how unlikely it was that they should both have been at that bus stop on that day, and how since somehow they did they think it’s a sign.

We see huge evidence against our hypothesis, invoke magic/friendly-chance as an explanation, then see this as confirmation that the original magic-friendly hypothesis was right.

Does this occur in other forms of delusion? I think so. We often use the semi-supernatural to explain gaps caused by impaired affective forecasting. As far as I remember we overestimate strength of future emotional responses, tend to think whatever happens was the best outcome, and whatever we own is better than what we could have owned (e.g. you like the children you’ve got more than potential ones you could have had if you had done it another day). We explain these with ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, or ‘everything happens for a reason’, or ‘it turns out it was meant to happen – now I’ve realised how wonderful it is to spend more time at home’, ‘I was guided to take that option – see how well it turned out!’ or as happens often to Mother; ‘the universe told me to go into that shop today, and uncannily enough, there was a sale there and I found this absolutely wonderful pair of pants!’.

Supernatural explanations aren’t just for gaps in our understanding. They are also for gaps between what we want to believe and are forced by proximity to almost notice.

Probability is the oil of rationalisation

Or How to do whatever you feel like despite being a rationalist.

To rationally make a choice you weigh up all costs and benefits of all possibilities and choose the one with the greatest net benefit. To rationalise a choice you want to make, you choose costs and benefits that lead to your choice seeming like the rational conclusion. Thinking you’re being rational while completely ignoring known costs and benefits that don’t lead to your preferred conclusion is hard to do though. Even slight intelligence leads you to notice things like this happening in your mind.

For most everyday decisions I suggest the ‘solution’ lies in probability estimation. While you might have a set of outcomes you consider possible, their likelihoods are virtually always uncertain. It’s a guessing game, and if you’re guessing, why not guess things that lead to the conclusion you prefer? You might even notice while you’re doing it that your probability estimates are being swayed by the conclusion they’ll lead to, but it doesn’t matter. Within the range where there are no other bases for their positioning, why change your estimates to ones with a less pleasing outcome in the short term? Essentially we slide partiality into the one non-rational part of a rational process.