Thank goodness that’s over: preferring our pains to be past

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Recent research from the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney undermines a widely held assumption that our preferences about the temporal location of events we directly experience will be biased in a certain kind of way, but that our preferences about the temporal locations of events we don’t directly experience will not be biased in that way.

Consider two kinds of negative event: having a painful dental procedure, and having embarrassing photos released to the media. Each of these is an event that each of us would like to avoid. But there is something importantly differently about them. The painful dental procedure is painful during the procedure. Assuming the procedure goes well, though, there ought not be ongoing pain. The pain has a particular location in time, and that location is tied to the location of the dental procedure. Compare that to the event of having embarrassing photos released to the media. The unpleasantness one experiences from that event does not seem to be tightly tied to the time of the event itself. Suppose some embarrassing photos of you are released on Sunday, but you are out hiking and know nothing of it. You don’t experience the humiliation, shame, anger, and other negative emotions until you return two weeks later. The negative experiences you have, as a result of the release of the photos, don’t seem to be tied to the time at which the photos are released. They also don’t seem to be tightly tied to the time at which you find out that they are released. You might discover the release of the photos two weeks after you return from hiking. Yet you might feel the heat of embarrassment a year later, when you think of those photos still circulating on the internet.

Events like the painful dental procedure are known as hedonic events. They are events that can be pleasant or unpleasant, but where the experience of the event is tied to the location of the event itself. The warmth of drinking a cup of hot chocolate, the tastiness of a good meal, the heat from a fire, and the foul taste of a medicine, are all experiences of hedonic events. By contrast, non-hedonic events are those that we experience, but where the experience is not directly tied to the location of the event itself. Receiving a prestigious award and having embarrassing photos released are non-hedonic events. The experience of these events can be just as intensely good, or bad, as the experience of hedonic events. But that experience is not tightly tied to the location of the event experienced.

Until recently, it had been assumed that we show future bias towards hedonic events, but not towards non-hedonic events. We are future biased when we tend to prefer to have positive events located in our future, and negative ones located in our past.  So, for instance, we know that people will tend to prefer  to learn that a painful dental procedure happened yesterday, rather than that the procedure is going to happen tomorrow, and that they will tend to prefer to learn that they will eat some very tasty cake tomorrow, rather than having eaten the cake yesterday.

It has seemed intuitive that while people will show future about hedonic events, such as dental procedures and cake eating, they will not show this for non-hedonic events. Researchers have typically explained hedonic future as the result of asymmetric emotions that track whether an event is past or future. For example, feelings of dread or anxiety are aroused by the prospect of future painful experiences but not by consideration of past painful experiences. Past painful experiences, in fact, often arouse positive emotions like relief. Our emotional responses to non-hedonic events do not seem to have this temporally asymmetric character. We do not seem to pass from feeling anxiety about, say, the impending release of embarrassing photos, to feeling relief that they have been released.   On this basis, researchers predicted that we would have no preference about whether embarrassing photos were released yesterday, or will be released tomorrow, and that we would have no preference about whether a prestigious prize was awarded yesterday, or will be awarded tomorrow.

It was on the basis of these predictions that some researchers, such as Brink (2011), Greene and Sullivan (2015), and Dougherty (2015), argued that future bias is irrational. These researchers pointed out that we only seem to show future bias about hedonic events, and we only show that bias when we are considering events that we ourselves will experience, rather than events that someone else will experience. These researchers concluded that something is going wrong in these cases, which leads us to irrationally prefer that negative hedonic events are located in the past, and positive hedonic events in the future.

We have already seen that these researchers were mistaken. We do have future biased preferences about the experiences of third parties. We prefer that third parties have negative hedonic events located in their past, and positive hedonic events in their future. But are the predictions borne out when it comes to preferences about the location of non-hedonic events?

Recent work by Greene, Latham, Miller and Norton (2020) aimed to test this prediction. They presented 931 participants with vignettes that either described a positive non-hedonic event (winning a prestigious award) or a negative non-hedonic event (having embarrassing photos released). The two vignettes described a scenario in which the participant is told that he or she is an astronaut on a spaceship away from Earth. In one vignette the astronaut could either learn that the embarrassing photos were released yesterday, or will be released tomorrow, and in the other vignette the astronaut could learn that the prestigious award was awarded yesterday, or will be be awarded tomorrow. Participants were then asked which of these they preferred to learn.

The study found that contrary to prediction, most people did not respond that they had no preference about the location of the non-hedonic event. Instead, participants who were asked about the negative non-hedonic event (the release of the embarrassing photos) were split between those who were future biased (they preferred that the photos were released yesterday, and not tomorrow) and those who either had no preference, or preferred that the photos were released tomorrow, and not yesterday. A majority of participants who were asked about the prestigious award responded that they either had no preference regarding its location, or that they preferred that the award be located in the past, rather than the future.

Greene, Latham, Miller, and Norton argue that their study suggests a more nuanced picture of our preferences. Future bias tends to increase when events are negatively valenced, and hedonic, and tends to decrease when they are positively valenced, and non-hedonic. So while there is a difference in the way we think about the location of non-hedonic events compared to hedonic ones, that difference is not straightforward. It is not the case that we simply don’t care where non-hedonic events are located, and that we do care where hedonic events are located.

So while perhaps it is irrational to prefer your dental procedure to be yesterday and not tomorrow, if it is, that is not because you don’t have any preference about when embarrassing photos will be released, or any preference regarding when you will be awarded a prestigious award.

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