June 21, 2004
Will A Happier Future Be A Nastier Future?

Happy people are quicker to make negative judgements of others.

Sad people are nice. Angry people are nasty. And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too.

Such (allowing for a little journalistic caricature) were the findings reported in last month's issue of Psychological Science. Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments -- like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody's sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an ''everything is fine'' attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes -- including malicious ones.

My assumption is that people will genetically engineer themselves and their children to be happier. Genetic variations that create propensities toward sadness and depression will be excised. So then will people become nastier and more judgemental as a result?

Another way that people may change in the future is they may become less pain sensitive. When men choose to boost their testosterone levels they are probably lowering their pain sensitivity.

"If men are less sensitive to pain, there is more willingness to fight and participate in further fights," says Michaela Hau, an animal physiology and behaviour scientist at Princeton University, New Jersey, and lead author of the study.

The research team gave testosterone implants to male sparrows and measured their reaction times to pain. Testosterone allowed the birds to tolerate discomfort for longer periods, suggesting that the hormone somehow disguises pain.

It is likely that lowered pain sensitivity is not the only way that testosterone boosts will change the brain and hence change behavior. Look at 'roid rage reports of weightlifters who become extremely angry and aggressive as a consequence of taking steroids. Imagine a future of happy people, more prone to anger, and who feel less pain. They will be nasty, judge others more harshly, and be more aggressive. That doesn't sound like a recipe for either neighborhood peace or world peace, does it?

Another worry about how human brains may come to be different in the future is that people may genetically engineer their children to be less prone to engage in altruistic punishment. Think of the impulse that drives a person to report or testify about a crime that they see commtted against someone else. Imagine that impulse just wasn't there. A reduction in that impulse would reduce the motivation of police and prosecutors as well. A future full of happy nasty people with a lower propensity to dole out altruistic punishment brings to mind the Oingo Boingo song Nothing bad ever happens to me.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 June 21 09:57 AM  Dangers Mind Engineering

froth said at June 21, 2004 8:55 PM:

The logic of the NYT piece is bass-ackwards.

They begin with their conclusion -- "happiness is linked to prejudice" -- and then proceed to blow it apart.

- Happiness increases with greater learning, the opposite of prejudice: "men become happier with age."
- Happiness increases with greater success in life: "Happiness is held to lengthen life, buffer stress and make people more productive on the job."
- Happiness is correlated with involvement in the nation's and world's affairs: "happy people are more likely than alienated people to get politically involved."
- Happiness is subjective and happy people's introspection reveals a feeling of "being satisfied with life, having episodes of joy."

The NYT's conclusion: Happy people see themselves in an "irrationally rosy light." Because, um, a long lifetime of learning, economic success and checking one's mood against others' that reveals "well-feeling" shows "a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others." In fact, their expert "has proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder."


Maybe happy people are happy because life is good for them. Maybe it only seems "unreasonable" and "unrealistic" to assess oneself positively to prejudiced, sad people who see only sadness as realistic.

Randall Parker said at June 21, 2004 10:27 PM:


Not everyone learns much with age.

Do you really think that rich people are as nice as lower class people?

Political involvement is not always nice. A lot of political involvement is done to get stuff from the government. In fact, the getters are far more motivated than those who are taxed and this tilts the playing field toward small motivated groups to get stuff from the taxpayers.

- I do't get what your point is about happiness being subjective. Are you saying that sad and happy people can not be distinguished from each other?

As for sadness and realism: I've read more detailed reports on a couple of the studies they are referring to. One method that some psychologist have used is to poll workers in a workplace on what they thought of their own ability and the abilities of their coworkers. The happy people thought they were more competent and productive than their coworkers thought they were. The sad people had more accurate self measures. A lot of work has been done on this. Yes, happy people with high self esteems really are deluded about their efficacy on average.

froth said at June 22, 2004 12:23 AM:


What a drumbeat of pessimism! The glass is half full!

People can and do learn with age, and I'll wager that prejudice wanes as judgment waxes, especially for the type of person who is engaged and productive.

I've known plenty of nice rich people and they're often quite happy ("I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better." -- Sophie Tucker). I'm not sure who the "lower class people" you refer to might be, or where they arose in the thread, but maybe you mean those who haven't had "success in life." Maybe they're nice, maybe they're bitter. Probably depends on the individual. Kinda my point.

Lots of people love politics without trying to get stuff from the taxpayers. In fact, I think it's the "alienated people" who are unhappy and would try to get the stuff if only they would get "politically involved." Voting is not very rational, in fact, and you have to be a somewhat irrational optimist to think you can make a difference.

Sad people can be distinguished from happy people by their subjective happiness or lack thereof. In fact, the subjective report of happiness is the only way to test for whether any objective measurement (of brain chemicals or something) is anywhere near to correct (i.e., the epistomological review of theories of qualia must rely on introspection). My point here was that calling into doubt the rationality of people who declare themselves to be "satisfied with life" is almost comically dour.

My larger point is just that the article was such a sad tale, told by a sad man from a sad perspective. The prejudice seemed to shine through that optimism was unrealistic and more than a little addled. I find instead that it's a great motivating force, and have always found pessimists to be the unrealistic ones that are wrong in the end (see Malthus, Ehrlich, et al.). Optimists have to be realists, because their actions necessarily take place in (and confront) the real world. Of course, you're probably right that they're a bit overconfident sometimes. Still, I prefer the phrase "cheerful optimism" to "deluded," that's all.

Lucia said at June 22, 2004 7:23 AM:

Froth and Randall..
You most both be deliriously happy because you are making all sort of judgements about both happy and sad people. (Or possibly you are both just angry?)

Lucia (who is happy to make this ridiculous judgement based on almost no evidence!)

Bob Badour said at June 22, 2004 7:35 AM:

Froth and Randall,

One has to remember that any sort of statistical research involves group averages. Certainly, there are some happy people who are very well-grounded in reality. (Dr. Phil comes to mind. lol Of course, some might think he confirms the nastiness conclusion.) I have also known some very happy people who were ineffective and unrealistic.

Come to think of it, both happiness and nastiness are very subjective. Plenty of socialists would conclude I am a nasty person because of my opinions regarding economics and politics. Never mind that socialist policies impoverish large swaths of society and the policies I endorse enrich everyone. Yet, my best friend and his family are staunch socialists and I know they are sincere in their intended goodwill.

It could be that the realistic happy people skew the nasty figures simply by acknowledging what is best for others. And it could be that the unrealistic unhappy people similarly skew the figures by wanting what people want and not what they need.

IHBT said at June 23, 2004 1:42 PM:
It could be that the realistic happy people skew the nasty figures simply by acknowledging what is best for others. And it could be that the unrealistic unhappy people similarly skew the figures by wanting what people want and not what they need.
Bob, you're reading way too much into this. I can only find the abstract of the original article, but the researchers ran two experiments to measure "nastiness" - one was an "evaluative priming" measure, which is not something I know much about, and the other was an Implicit Association Test, which is a type of exercise you can try for yourself. There's certainly nothing in the abstract to indicate that the results incorporate opinions about what's best for people in the long run, or any judgment at all about the appropriate response to actions of the negatively-evaluated outgroup. Just "hey, look at this guy, does he look like a criminal or what?"
Bob Badour said at June 23, 2004 7:47 PM:

Sorry IHBT,

I cannot try the exercise because I do not allow flash to run on my computer.

I still hold that nastiness is subjective. I can see how different tests could easily reveal different nastiness measures.

sf said at June 24, 2004 10:07 AM:

Interesting and thought-provoking article. Certainly those of us who consider ourselves happy will be amused to find this emotion (condition?) branded as delusional or as a psychiatric disorder!

But it should be kept in mind that in the world of psychiatry, to be found "judgmental" is a bad thing. By contrast, most of us laymen would probably conclude that being able to 'judge'--read, to 'assess' or size up--a situation or person very quickly would seem to be quite useful and a survival-positive.

Perhaps when psychiatrists and behaviorists claim ("determine"?) a person or group is "judgmental", what they're really referring to is the type of response where the subject, having made an initial assessment, is thereafter unwilling to consider any new facts that would force him to revise that initial conclusion.

I spent a decade in a job that routinely required instant assessments of situations, and where the penalty *both* for failing to make an assessment, and for making the wrong decision *and failing to recognize and change course* was often fatal. The only way to succeed--to live long enough to retire--was to be both "judgmental" *and at the same time* constantly open to new information. It didn't seem particularly difficult then, and doesn't now.

Brian said at March 21, 2008 11:11 AM:

I am a happy person, and yes, I am judgmental as well and, like the poster above, I do not see that as a negative thing. I see it as a necessary quality for not simply personal survival, but personal advancement. I am lucky to work with a group of positive, productive people who support me in what I do. I also have a small, supportive group of friends.

By the way, though happy, yes I do have a nasty side too, which I cunningly use whenever I need to, so all you angry, aggressive people out there, beware. I remember this angry, red-faced teacher I had in grade 5 who was always screaming or shaking somebody. I suffered a few humiliating moments under her verbal assaults and was shaken by her on more than one occasion. I recall her screaming at me once, red-faced as always, saying that I was sneaky. I think now, looking back with the wisdom gained by over three decades of living, that she must have been on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But I also must say that, yes, you crazy bitch, I can be sneaky, and yes, I can subtly hurt you in order to protect my interests.

It's just my nature. I am only human. :-)

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