January 03, 2008

Dead hypotheticals


In a recent New York Times article tapping into the blown New Year's Resolution frame of mind, Benedict Carey describes the psychology of regret in terms of contemplation of our "lost possible selves," the people you might have been had you made different decisions at a certain points in time.

This is similar to a concept I've played around with for some time. It gets a mention in chapter 19 of The Path of Dreams, where I call it a "dead hypothetical" (here Connor is talking):

"It's this theory--well, rationalization--I concocted, based on the many-universes hypothesis: that for every decision presented to you there exists a universe where the choice you didn't make is played out. But some decisions, I've concluded, have no hypothetical, no alternate universe of possibilities. There may be a fork in the road, but the road not taken was a dead end all along. Some facet of who you are, or who they are, or the basic nature of space and time, simply ruled out that choice having any life of its own. The 'what if' is dead."

In the article, Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, is quoted as saying: "The idea is move people away from this element of resentment, the sense that if only my parents this or I had done that, I would have what I want. That’s a dead end."

The younger you says: "I coulda been a contender." The older you says: "Not a chance, you idiot (and be thankful you didn't turn your brains into mush along the way)."

Glenn Reynolds picks up the many-universes analogy: "This may also explain why people tend to get happier past their mid-forties. By that point, most of the possible selves have been extinguished [turned into dead hypotheticals] and the opportunity costs of living go down."

This should be distinguished from becoming more cynical or resigned. It's better described as the process by which you find out all the things you don't like doing and/or stink at, and choose to no longer waste time and energy on. This allows you to spend more time doing the things you like (or at least don't loathe) and are good (or better) at instead.

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