- Nanay claims that there are four options for desire-formation:-
- Direct response to needs (thirst gives me the desire to drink something),
- Beliefs not acquired from testimony (I know from experience that orange-juice will quench my thirst, so if thirsty I may desire to drink it),
- Indirect Desire Infection: A desire resulting from a belief obtained from testimony
- Direct Desire Infection: A desire resulting from observing the desires of others, but not based on beliefs desired from testimony.
- In the case of Direct Desire Infection, we may confabulate a rational explanation for our desires.
- We don’t have the same screening mechanism (against “odd” desires) that we have in the case of false beliefs.
- Nanay rejects second (and higher-) order desires as screening mechanisms, as he thinks they themselves can be acquired by Direct Desire Infection, leading to an infinite regress. I found this very unconvincing, as I can’t imagine how the desire that my desires should be rational could be caused by the same sort of processes as the desire to dance in a dance-hall.
- Note that those who don’t have higher-order desires are wantons1. Naively, if second-order desires could be acquired by Direct Desire Infection, their possession wouldn’t be definitive of personhood2.
Author’s Concluding Paragraphs
- The contrast I made between the screening mechanism of beliefs and that of desires is not supposed to be absolute. Our screening of false beliefs often fails. And, as some techniques in psychiatry show, some ‘unwanted’ desires often do get screened out, for example, by making the conflict between them blatantly obvious. But while there is a default mechanism for the screening of beliefs, there is no comparable default screening mechanism for desires. And this has serious potential implications for how we think of the self.
- Our desires change. The question is, what changes them? We acquire many of our desires by means of desire infection, and there is no real screening of these desires. But this means that many of our desires are, in some sense, inherited from the people around us.
- A radical consequence of this argument concerns the way we should think about the self in light of these considerations. A widespread way of thinking about the self, going at least as far back as the 18th century and David Hume, is that it consists of the set of all our desires (besides some other mental states). But if this is so, then who we are (or the self) is a result, to a large extent, of random desire infection.
- We know that we systematically ignore the possibility that our future self could be different from our present self. This is called the ‘end of history illusion’: we have a tendency to consider our self a finished product, but it is blatantly not. And this ‘end of history illusion3’ makes it even more likely that we will try to give post-hoc rationalisations for any desires we might acquire by means of direct desire infection.
- So the self changes. The question is, how much of this change is under our control? Some of it is: we have pretty good control over what new beliefs we acquire. And we might even have control over really wild, crazy desires. But we have no full control. Direct desire infection can have a real effect on who we are and whom we become – it is a phenomenon we should take very seriously.
- Sub-title: "That drink, that cigarette, that dance: wanting things is highly contagious. Can you be immunised against the infection?"
- For the full text, see Aeon: Nanay - Catching Desires.
Footnote 3: Nanay references his brief TED talk (Bence Nanay: TED Talk - The End of History Illusion), of which the supplied transcript is:-
- 00:07: When trains began to shuttle people across the coutryside, many insisted they would never replace horses. Less than a century later, people repeated that same prediction about cars, telephones, radio, television, and computers. Each had their own host of detractors. Even some experts insisted they wouldn’t catch on.
- 00:29: Of course, we can’t predict exactly what the future will look like or what new inventions will populate it. But time and time again, we’ve also failed to predict that the technologies of the present will change the future. And recent research has revealed a similar pattern in our individual lives: we’re unable to predict change in ourselves. Three psychologists documented our inability to predict personal change in a 2013 paper called, “The End of History Illusion.” Named after political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy was the final form of government, or as he called it, “the end of history,” their work highlights the way we see ourselves as finished products at any given moment.
- 01:16: The researchers recruited over 7,000 participants ages 18 to 68. They asked half of these participants to report their current personality traits, values, and preferences, along with what each of those metrics had been ten years before. The other half described those features in their present selves, and predicted what they would be ten years in the future. Based on these answers, the researchers then calculated the degree of change each participant reported or predicted.
- 01:48: For every age group in the sample, they compared the predicted changes to the reported changes. So they compared the degree to which 18-year-olds thought they would change to the degree to which 28-year-olds reported they had changed. Overwhelmingly, at all ages, people’s future estimates of change came up short compared to the changes their older counterparts recalled. 20-year-olds expected to still like the same foods at 30, but 30-year-olds no longer had the same tastes. 30-year-olds predicted they’d still have the same best friend at 40, but 40-year-olds had lost touch with theirs. And 40-year-olds predicted they’d maintain the same core values that 50-year-olds had reconsidered. While older people changed less than younger people on the whole, they underestimated their capacity for change just as much. Wherever we are in life, the end of history illusion persists: we tend to think that the bulk of our personal change is behind us.
- 02:52: One consequence of this thinking is that we’re inclined to overinvest in future choices based on present preferences. On average, people are willing to pay about 60% more to see their current favorite musician ten years in the future than they’d currently pay to see their favorite musician from ten years ago. While the stakes involved in concert-going are low, we’re susceptible to similar miscalculations in more serious commitments, like homes, partners, and jobs. At the same time, there’s no real way to predict what our preferences will be in the future. Without the end of history Illusion, it would be difficult to make any long-term plans.
- 03:33: So the end of history illusion applies to our individual lives, but what about the wider world? Could we be assuming that how things are now is how they will continue to be? If so, fortunately, there are countless records to remind us that the world does change, sometimes for the better. Our own historical moment isn’t the end of history, and that can be just as much a source of comfort as a cause for concern.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)