Surrogation as a Decision Making Tool

You have to make a decision. Suppose you are trying to decide on whether London or Dublin is a better place to visit with small children. You read the travel guides and try to imagine what it will be like in each city. You envision what your daily experiences will be like. Will you make a decision that your family finds acceptable and enjoyable? Alternatively, you could ask others who have traveled to London and Dublin. What were their experiences like? Which did they prefer for their small children? You might hesitate to use the latter strategy of consulting others. After all, your family is rather unique. What if those other families are very different from yours?

It turns out that consulting others makes much more sense than trying to envision the future, at least in most cases. The strategy of consulting others is called surrogation – i.e. you are using others’ experiences as a surrogate for your own.

The surrogate’s verdict is a useful guide because we are far more similar to each other than we realize. If you look at other human beings, we seem amazingly varied, but what we forget is that if a Martian came and looked at us, he wouldn’t be able to tell any of us apart.

The same holds for our inner reactions. One of the ways we’re quite similar is in our hedonic or emotional reactions to events. Yes, it’s true that you may like strawberry ice cream more than chocolate, whereas I prefer chocolate. But that shouldn’t obscure the much bigger point: everybody likes ice cream more than they like gall-bladder surgery. Everybody prefers a weekend in Paris to being hit over the head with a two-by-four. Economic markets exist for this very reason: to a large degree, people like the same things.

This suggests that ideas trump reality. But in predicting your likings, even someone else’s direct experience trumps mental hypotheses—which is why surrogation works. But to be helpful, the surrogate’s experience must be recent. People are very poor at remembering how happy they were.“So it’s not very useful to ask, ‘How much did you like something you experienced last year?’ People get most questions about happiness wrong. But there is one question they get right: how happy are you right now?

Summing-up: Surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions.

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