Monday, November 29, 2010

Smug satisfaction at predicting what is easily predictable

Why, I wonder, do I [and many others] get a satisfaction (or kick) when something so self-evident, which we had become so accustomed to predicting, turns out to be true? Why does not the brain adapt to repeated exposure and become indifferent, instead of satisfied.

On London Underground, “No exit” usually means “short cut”. This is true most of the time but not always. So whenever I take the exit marked “No exit” and find that it is indeed a short cut, I feel well pleased, as if I had discovered something new, when in fact I have not. I suppose the fact that it is not always true gives me the thrill of knowing that I had predicted correctly, for I could have got it wrong.

The same is true of politicians, at least in the UK. Whenever the Prime Minister of the UK declares that a minister who had been caught in some scandal or another has “my full support and backing”, it is almost certain that the said minister will resign sooner rather than later. But it is not always so, which is perhaps why we are satisfied when we get the prediction that the minister will resign right, even if past experience shows that our prediction is likely to be right.

Consider next the vehement protests of the Irish Government that they will not seek a bail-out, that they will refuse to borrow more money to get themselves out of debt (a somewhat ridiculous situation when one thinks about it). The more vehement the denial, the more apparent it became that they would seek a bail-out, which is what they did in the end. But there always remained the possibility that they may not, which is what gives us the satisfaction of having made the correct prediction. If we had known it as a certainty that the denials meant that they would actually borrow the money to process the debt resulting from borrowing money, maybe we would have less satisfaction with our prediction, which results from our knowledge that politicians lie.

Currently, the Portuguese Government is angrily denying that they it seek a financial bail-out, a denial echoed by the President of the European Commission, Mr Barosso, who was “absolutely” certain that this would not happen.

Well, my prediction is that it will; and if I turn out to be correct, I shall feel a certain satisfaction at having been correct. We will wait and see.

The general point I am making is that, even when the brain becomes accustomed to the fact that certain statements mean the opposite, it still entertains the possibility that, on some occasions, the statements are correct. And hence, when it finds that its predictions are correct, it gets some satisfaction, even if the predictions are what would be expected from past history anyway.

All of which points to some interesting brain experiments on prediction.

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