Time preferences, character, and The Novel (in my novel)

A friend was reading a novel I wrote called The Hook and asked: “I’m curious. . . Do you believe this?” of this passage, in which the speaker is a teenage girl describing her teacher:*

But Scott sometimes said that if we do something, it shows that we wanted to at that time, even if we regret it later. So other people can’t really “make” us do anything. He said that people want different things over different courses of time—so in the short term, you might want one thing, in the long term, something else, and when you’re in the heat of the moment, the short term is pretty sweet.

The answer to my friend’s question is: mostly but not entirely. Zimbardo and Boyd wrote The Time Paradox, which describes how some people default to “past,” “present,” or “future” orientations or dispositions; hedonic people tend to be present-oriented, high achievers (probably a lot of engineers) tend to be future-oriented, and nostalgic, content, family-centered people tend to be past-oriented. These categories obviously aren’t hard and fast, and everyone has some of all of them, but I think the overall idea stands. And people who have one central orientation probably don’t understand others well, just like extroverts tend not to understand introverts; I think reading helps people better understand others not like themselves.

People are also pretty strongly biased by random emotions, feelings, and environments; for example, in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he describes how people in a sexually aroused state make very different or predictions decisions from those in a “cold” state—one might say they become much more present-oriented, which is probably obvious to those of us who have been in that state and are willing to think consciously and rationally about it afterwards. Most of us have probably been in that state, but relatively few of us want to admit what it’s like when we’re not in it. On a separate note, Ariely speculates that this may apply to hunger and other states too.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the numerous biases that we’re prone to, including a bias towards present consumption in lieu of future consumption. So if we’re in the moment being offered the pleasures of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, spending, or whatever, the “future” might seem very far away and uncertain (that’s what Karl Smith gets when he writes “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” that so many other commenters miss). So people are inclined to do things they say they “regret” or say “wasn’t them,” even when it probably was: it’s just that the person who gave into their craving was thinking in a different frame of mind, and the person in a “cold” frame of mind probably wants to present themselves differently than a person in a “hot” frame of mind acts. You may notice that a lot of people say, “I was drunk,” as if that means they had no control over what they were doing, but their rational self decided to take the first drink. It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.

This is how you get people suffused with regret for acts they very much enjoyed previously. Sex is the most obvious example here, but there are others. What a lot of people call “attraction” or “chemistry” looks to me more like people being attracted to specific behavioral or physical traits they then cloak in other words. This, basically, is what Neil Strauss explains in The Game and other self-proclaimed pickup people discuss in different venues. But it only works if women are attracted to the kind of show that such guys put on; many women in clubs / bars appear to be, at least to some extent, because if they weren’t then “game” wouldn’t work. I find this stuff more intellectually interesting than immediately applicable to my day-to-day life, but it nonetheless shows that a lot of social life happens below the level of consciousness and in ways that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.

As I said earlier, people who tend to be highly logical and future oriented (I’m somewhat like this; you seem like you are too, although I obviously can’t speak for you and am not totally sure) often don’t “get” or understand people who aren’t. And vice-versa. People who are hedonically oriented in one moment and disavow their hedonism the next seem like hypocrites—and they are. But most people seem to be hypocrites and don’t take the time to deeply analyze what their “feelings” are telling them. Kahneman develops the idea of two “systems” that people use: the first is a fast, heuristic system that guides us to make instant, snap decisions; the second slows us down to analyze situations, but it’s much more laborious and harder to engage. Most people live in system one most of the time, including us. It takes a lot of effort to motivate system two. So we get a lot of biases from system one that sometimes make our system two self unhappy later.

I think one problem intellectuals like me have is an unwillingness to be sufficiently present-oriented, to slip out of our eggheads and into the now. A lot of cultures and societies have festivals or rituals that encourage this sort of thing; you can see a contemporary example in Brazil’s Carnival and numerous examples in older cultures (Donna Tartt’s excellent novel The Secret History exploits this interest for its plot). But ours doesn’t, which might in part be a function of our wacky religious heritage. We don’t have a lot of space for ritual; the closest we get is something like Halloween and extreme drinking parties, where people get to release or transcend the self in ways that may produce great pleasure. But, again, what is pleasure? Merely neurochemical? Or something else? I don’t have good answers, though I’m very curious.

So: do I believe what Stacy says Scott asserts? Somewhat. I think Scott’s mistake is assuming there’s a single, unified person in there somewhere. Either that, or Stacy, who’s speaking in the section you marked, misunderstands Scott, or can’t apply what he says because she doesn’t have the background to do so.

As you can probably tell from the above, I don’t really know what I believe; I’m guided in my thinking by some of the things I’ve read and observed, but the issue is complex enough that I don’t think they tell the whole story. When I was younger, I believed in a unified self; if someone did one particular thing at one particular time, that was a revealed preference, that’s who they were, and that’s the end of the story. Now, a lot of the work of behavioral and evolutionary psychologists and economists has forced me to rethink those ideas, and consciousness is much stranger than I really appreciated!

If you want to judge for yourself, the books I cited above are a good and lucid place to start. But I don’t think they’re the end of the story; maybe the story has no end. That’s not a real satisfying statement, but it’s what I’ve got and where I’ve gotten with my own imperfect thinking. Deep, much-debated issues often are that way because there isn’t a “right” answer per se—only a range of possibilities that are continually deepened over time through research, observation, and writing.

Note: The next paragraph has some material germane to the novel but that won’t make a lot of sense outside the context of the novel.

I mostly wish someone had explained a lot of this to me when I was younger. But they didn’t, which might be why Stacy repeats what Scott says to her (there’s so much I try to convey to people who’re younger than me, but I suspect most of them don’t really have the framework necessary to situate what I’m telling them, and thus they can’t really deploy it in behavioral changes). In the context of The Hook, I think Stacy and Arianna make their video at Sheldon’s coaxing because they’re caught up in the moment, and they’re obviously unhappy when the video gets shown to the whole school. So is Stacy the girl who is willing to bare her stuff for the camera when she’s sexually excited and not really thinking about what comes next, or the girl who can stand up in front of the whole assembly and walk nobly down and out, transcending the moment and trying to show herself beyond high school bullshit?

Both and neither. Which is, I hope, what makes her interesting as a character, and why I suspect narrative fiction will continue to enchant us even when research has surpassed many of the nonfiction writers on whom I’m drawing when I’m drawing characters.


This post started life as an e-mail to my friend, and I’ve edited it some before publishing it here.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers | The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan) | The Story's Story

  3. Pingback: Where does personality come from? « The Story's Story

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