Sunday, April 02, 2006
Wants versus Likes
Some key excerpts:
So, in the formal theory, the highest ranked preference has the highest utility. And the highest ranked preference is revealed by the agent’s actual choice. (If something else had been more preferred, it would have been chosen instead.) Now, the folk theory adds a substantive hypothesis that is no part of the formal theory: preference satisfaction is involves a kind of psychological satisfaction as well as abstract semantic satisfaction (i.e., a fit between the semantic content of the preference and the state of the world.) That is to say, preference satisfaction is satisfying. And the satisfaction of the most preferred option is most satisfying. Economist folk theory envisions a kind of pre-established harmony between formal utility and hedonic utility, and that’s how it is supposed to work. (I blame Bentham.)
The problem is that pre-established harmony is false. The neuroscience shows that satisfaction of the highest ranked preference does not imply the greatest hedonic satisfaction. It does not imply any hedonic satisfaction. Take a look at this paper, “Parsing Reward,” [pdf] by Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson. They report that “wanting” and “liking” have “are in fact dissociable and have different neural substrates.” Roughly, the dopamine system is more about wanting–”incentive salience”–and liking or hedonic satisfaction has more to do with opioids.
And that pretty much demolishes pre-established harmony. What choice reveals is what we most want. But what we most want need not correspond to any kind of representation of what we expected would produces the best hedonic outcome, and doing what you want need not produce any hedonic payoff at all.
This will trouble a lot of people, mostly economists, who buy into economist folk morality. Without pre-established harmony, some libertarian economist folk wisdom falls apart. It will be possible in many circumstance to make people better off hedonically by decreasing their budget–by taking alternatives away. The hedonically ideal choice set will be the one in which the most preferred option corresponds with the biggest hedonic payoff. But that will be a choice set in which all the options that you want more, but which satisfy less, have been removed.
Like I said, check it out, and read the comments as well for some challenges to his point of view.
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