Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire

An article in Scientific American says that things we want appear closer (and more easily attainable) than things we don't want.
For example, [experimental subjects] who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted.
This echos the idea that we have evolved to be optimistic. We are motivated
to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.

The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears … the more distant it will seem. … That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.
There is other research that says that depressed people—who tend to have reduced desire for anything—are typically more accurate in estimating the probabilities that desirable things will happen. The rest of the world tends to be too optimistic.

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