Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Campaign Donations and Happiness

This year I have made a donation to the Democratic Presidential campaign, as I did in 2012 and 2008.  I also gave a modest sum to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (which campaigns for House seats) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  I've also signed up to volunteer for the Clinton campaign in my neighboring state of Pennsylvania.  Finally, I bought and make a point of wearing several pro-Clinton t-shirts.

The Democrats have my phone number and email address.  And they use them vigorously to try to get more money out of me.  I get emails basically accusing me of wanting the Republicans to win because I haven't given any money in the last few months.  (Note:  I make a point of giving the money fairly early because it is more valuable to the campaign that way.)  So in other words, I don't think there's any amount of money I could give that would prevent me from being subjected to these insinuations that I'm terrible.

In a way I don't blame them.  They need to raise money, and to do so they need to motivate people like me to dig deeper.  They don't have the luxury of adopting a perspective like:  "James has already given a lot, let's not play mind games with him at this point."  They know I'm committed to the cause and so they have to squeeze me.  It would be malpractice not to.  (For what it's worth, they also send nice thank-you letters from time to time.)

Anyway that's life.  But it got me thinking about the way our brains reward us for doing various things.  Imagine an index showing how much effort an individual has put into promoting the survival of his/her genes, and also an index of pleasure/satisfaction (let's put this on a scale from 1 to 10).  The trick that the brain has to pull off is that it has to convince the individual that there will be big happiness gains from making reproductive efforts or whatever (this could take many forms, from acquiring wealth to exercising to simply having sex).  So in other words, if you are currently at a 5 on the happiness/satisfaction index, the brain might suggest to you that you will be at a 7 if you make some big effort to make yourself more attractive.

But your brain runs into the same problem that political campaigns do:  pretty soon it's run out of space to offer rewards (or in the case of a campaign, it needs to start pretending you are "behind" on your efforts), and it has to dial you back down the happiness/satisfaction scale in order to give it some room to promise increases.  This is a variation of the "sunk cost" fallacy:  in both cases, the point is to affect my behavior going forward, and it would be unproductive to give me big rewards simply because of past behavior.  Or to put it another way:  those big rewards are necessary, but they must also be sharply time-limited, or they eliminate all possibility of further gains on a forward-looking basis.

Of course it's more complicated than that - if the abuse from the campaigns really bothered me, I might stop giving and unsubscribe from their emails.  There has to be some amount of reward for my past behavior.  When it comes to brain chemistry, it's also a question of how good my memory is.  The brain, of course, has tricks up its sleeves that political campaigns don't.  It can make me accept promises of future happiness that a rational actor wouldn't believe (since a rational actor would take into account the dynamic I've described above).  The brain can make me forget how things have played out in the past.

Anyway just an observation about how our internal reward systems are complicated and sometimes perverse.


Blogger Grobstein said...

A related issue is, why are there punishments and not just rewards? Instead of punishing you for falling short of the optimum, couldn't evolution / God / Hillary just give you an even bigger reward for moving towards the optimum? Evidently not.

It is also interesting how external rewards / punishment seem to be a matter of justice. It seems unfair for Hillary to punish you when you are already doing so much. But why? Why does there seem to be an "objective" fact of what acts "deserve" what external reward / punishment?

12:42 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yeah, it's interesting. But I admit I'm on shaky ground here. If we felt only pleasure, would we recognize it as such? I guess by definition yes?

As for fairness, I think the point is that I could probably keep them off my back with a long string of small contributions. Instead I made a few larger contributions up front, because that is the right way to maximize the value of the contributions to the campaign. But the result is that I haven't given anything in months, and so they send me these nasty emails. It seems unfair because it is unresponsive to the actual aggregate amount that I've given.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah. I notice the same thing. The way I respond is to hold off on making any donations until October 1st. I know this is / may be sub optimal, but if they wanted different behavior they could have designed a different set of incentives. It is within the powers of a modern web dev to design a system that lets you pay a bit more up front to opt out of annoying emails.

8:33 AM  

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