Philosoph-Off: Jeremy Bentham vs. Fear of Missing Out

Blame it on the bucket list or any number of pinterest-y quotes about how awful it is to have things in your life that you regret not doing. It’s so much easier to make a mistake, hit the ground, and move on than it is to wonder how differently (better?) your life could have been had you gone option B. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a ubiquitous 20something disease.

Jeremy Bentham developed an awesome decision making tool called hedonic calculus. Basically you just rate every potential course of action according to a static set of conditions:

  • the intensity of happiness it will bring you
  • the duration of the happiness
  • the certainty or uncertainty that the action will make you happy
  • whether the gratification will be immediate or delayed
  • fecundity
  • whether the action will have negative consequences
  • how many people will it bring happiness to?

I’m not trying to tell Jeremy how to philosophize but it really seems like this algorithm needs an eighth consideration: whether the absence of the action will induce FOMO. You could go through this whole list and determine that an action doesn’t sound like a really great investment. Things like moving to Brooklyn because you really want to make it as a writer, switching careers or getting back together with an ex have actually a negative guarantee of happiness. They are highly risky situations in which it’s realistic that you may end up broke, unhappy and living with your parents.

Adding potential for FOMO to Bentham’s hedonic calculus acknowledge that learning life lessons or benefiting from uncalculated risks are just as valuable than a safe bet. We have more options than people in Bentham’s time did. We also live longer and know that well have a long time to stew about a missed opportunity when we’re kept artificially alive in a nursing home. Act accordingly.

Newsflash: You Should Be Happy!!!

Matt Ridley has written an entertaining book: The Rational Optimist, detailing all the ways in which life is great for rich people. (By rich people I mean the fraction of humans who make ≥5 figure salaries in $.)

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For example Louis XIV had a hundred chefs make him 100 meals and throw away the 99 he didn’t want, but nowadays a New York City “peasant” has even more choice of dinner consumption, without needing to be king. (I’m not sure if this applies to the poorest person in NYC or the poor ones who can’t make it in … which is why I’m restricting the statement to ≥$10000 earners. Although maybe Mr Ridley would argue that even a subsistence farmer today has it better than Les Hommes de Cro-Magnon.)

But so, uh, why is this an interesting book? Nobody writes a book called Hey, did you know the sky is blue? Except at sunset when it’s pink or when it rains it’s grey. Isn’t that interesting?! Because everybody already knows that. The fact that Mr Ridley can sell a “provocative” book full of amazing facts and viewpoints about how prosperous we are sends a grave message the opposite way.

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Why is it that we need a book from Mr Ridley to remind us how good we’ve got it?


February 7th 1497: Bonfire of the Vanities

On this day in 1497 in Florence, thousands of objects including cosmetics, art, carnival masks, and books were burned in a so-called ‘bonfire of the vanities’. The bonfire was orchestrated by the supporters of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who spoke out against corruption in the Catholic Church and called for Christian renewal. The puritanical Savonarola became a prominent moral and political leader in Florence during the Medici exile, thundering against human wickedness and hedonism, which he framed in apocalyptic terms. Under his direction, street festivals and general frivolities were banned in Florence, and the famous bonfire destroyed objects seen as promoting the sin of vanity in the hope of cleansing the soul. Among Savanarola’s enemies was Pope Alexander VI, and in early 1498 he was arrested by Florentine authorities. The priest and his core supporters were tortured and condemned as heretics; Savanarola was executed on May 23rd 1498 in the Piazza della Signoria.

Cocaine addiction: Scientists discover ‘back door’ into the brain

Individuals addicted to cocaine may have difficulty in controlling their addiction because of a previously-unknown ‘back door’ into the brain, circumventing their self-control, suggests a new study led by the University of Cambridge.

A second study from the team suggests that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals who want to break their addiction and stop their damaging cocaine seeking habits.

Although both studies were carried out in rats, the researchers believe the findings will be relevant to humans.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that can lead to addiction when taken repeatedly. Quitting can be extremely difficult for some people: around four in ten individuals who relapse report having experienced a craving for the drug – however, this means that six out of ten people have relapsed for reasons other than ‘needing’ the drug.

“Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’,” explains Dr David Belin from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. “In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion. We wanted to understand why this should be the case.”

Drug-taking causes a release in the brain of the chemical dopamine, which helps provide the ‘high’ experienced by the user. Initially the drug taking is volitional – in other words, it is the individual’s choice to take the drug – but over time, this becomes habitual, beyond their control.

Previous research by Professor Barry Everitt from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge showed that when rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine, dopamine-related activity occurred initially in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which plays a significant role driving ‘goal-directed’ behaviour, as the rats sought out the drug. However, if the rats were given cocaine over an extended period, this activity transferred to the dorsolateral striatum, which plays an important role in habitual behaviour, suggesting that the rats were no longer in control, but rather were responding automatically, having developed a drug-taking habit.

The brain mechanisms underlying the balance between goal-directed and habitual behaviour involves the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that orchestrates our behaviour. It was previously thought that this region was overwhelmed by stimuli associated with the drugs, or with the craving experienced during withdrawal; however, this does not easily explain why the majority of individuals relapsing to drug use did not experience any craving.

Chronic exposure to drugs alters the prefrontal cortex, but it also alters an area of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, which is associated with the link between a stimulus and an emotion. The basolateral amygdala stores the pleasurable memories associated with cocaine, but the pre-frontal cortex manipulates this information, helping an individual to weigh up whether or not to take the drug: if an addicted individual takes the drug, this activates mechanisms in the dorsal striatum.

However, in a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Belin and Professor Everitt studied the brains of rats addicted to cocaine through self-administration of the drug and identified a previously unknown pathway within the brain that links impulse with habits.

The pathway links the basolateral amygdala indirectly with the dorsolateral striatum, circumventing the prefrontal cortex. This means that an addicted individual would not necessarily be aware of their desire to take the drug.

“We’ve always assumed that addiction occurs through a failure or our self-control, but now we know this is not necessarily the case,” explains Dr Belin. “We’ve found a back door directly to habitual behaviour.

“Drug addiction is mainly viewed as a psychiatric disorder, with treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy focused on restoring the ability of the prefrontal cortex to control the otherwise maladaptive drug use. But we’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex is not always aware of what is happening, suggesting these treatments may not always be effective.”

In a second study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, Dr Belin and colleagues showed that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals addicted to cocaine overcome their addiction – provided the individual wants to quit.

The drug, N-acetylcysteine, had previously been shown in rat studies to prevent relapse. However, the drug later failed human clinical trials, though analysis suggested that while it did not lead addicted individuals to stop using cocaine, amongst those who were trying to abstain, it helped them refrain from taking the drug.

Dr Belin and colleagues used an experiment in which rats compulsively self-administered cocaine. They found that rats given N-acetylcysteine lost the motivation to self-administer cocaine more quickly than rats given a placebo. In fact, when they had stopped working for cocaine, they tended to relapse at a lower rate. N-acetylcysteine also increased the activity in the brain of a particular gene associated with plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and learn new skills.

“A hallmark of addiction is that the user continues to take the drug even in the face of negative consequences – such as on their health, their family and friends, their job, and so on,” says co-author Mickael Puaud from the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Cambridge. “Our study suggests that N-acetylcysteine, a drug that we know is well tolerated and safe, may help individuals who want to quit to do so.”

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