The idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is often trotted out as a metaphor for understanding empathy. The act of imagining someone else’s reactions may be hard, but based on the body of work by George Loewenstein, predicting how — under varying circumstances — we might walk in our own shoes may not be all that easier.
Loewenstein is the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His enormous range of research interests can be boiled down, after a lot of boiling, to applying psychology to economics and, more recently, economics to psychology.
His career as a founder of both behavioral economics and neuro-economics has seen him delve deeply into how we react when our “affective state” is cold – when are emotions are absent and our physical needs are currently met – compared to when our affective state is hot. The latter is when out emotions are active or when our passions, as the old philosophers might term things like things hunger, thirst, pain, sexual desire, are pulling us.
It turns out, as he explains to interview David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “when we are in one affective state it’s difficult for us to imagine how we would behave if we were in a different affective state. … The worst mistakes we make are when we are in a cold state, because we just can’t imagine how we would behave if we were in a hot state.”
While this may seem like something we know intuitively (or after years of high-profile experiments by Lowenstein, his frequent collaborator Leaf VanBoven, and others have conducted, several described in this podcast), it’s not something we act on intuitively. “No matter how many times we experience fluctuations in affective states,” Loewenstein says, “it just seems we don’t learn about this. We are always going to mis-predict how we’re going to behave when we’re in a hot state if we’re making the prediction when we’re in a cold state.”
This, in turn, affects the products of people who make predictions (or if you prefer, policy prescriptions) as a profession, he adds, such as economists.
“According to conventional economics, when we make decisions about the future we should be thing about what it is will we want in the future. What all of these results show is that your current state influences your prediction about what you’re going to want in the future; it influences these decisions that we make for the future in unproductive, self-destructive ways.”
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