In this post, we take a look at the well-established phenomenon of the “hedonic treadmill” and problematize it with our articulation of the “hedonic treadmill dilemma”. We then use this framing as a backdrop for reflecting about the stories of Wile E. Coyote, a prominent cartoon character whose behavior exhibits many similarities to humanity writ large. Altogether, we hope to stimulate personal reflections about what it means to be an intelligent living being and one’s own relation to life. We also see but do not explicitly discuss potential implications for cause prioritization and macro-strategy. Let's start discussing those in the comments!
What is the hedonic treadmill?
The concept of the hedonic treadmill (Brickman & Campbell, 1971) has become a staple of public discourse about psychology and what it can teach us about how to live happier lives. It is a visual metaphor that aims to illustrate how our perceived well-being levels, although they may rise and fall for short periods of time depending on our contextual circumstances, always return back to a set point that is more or less stable over time. As hard as we may run toward our valued goals (or away from our fears), the adaptive machinery of our bodies acts like a treadmill that strives to hold our outlook on life in a moderate place.
Why does the hedonic treadmill exist?
Part of the answer may be that we are part of a dynamic system struggling to survive and reproduce, and neither the feeling of endless blissful happiness nor eternal suffering is conducive to keeping us alive and procreating. We need to remain attentive to experience in order to notice changes inside or outside the body that may affect our chances of survival and reproduction, so that we can either seek them out or try to get away from them (Hayes, 2019). The ability to express such rapid contextual adaptation necessarily requires the maintenance of a gradient of experience that can guide and inform such behavior. If everything felt the same or very similar, we would not be motivated to act intelligently and enhance our chances of success in life. Thus, the hedonic treadmill may be a core piece to the puzzle of why we are and continue to be here at all. It may just be that part of the system that keeps us attentive to internal and external changes and, thus, life running along.
How does the hedonic treadmill work?
One perspective that can help to explain the mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill is the cognitive science literature on predictive processing and relevance realization (e.g., Andersen et al., 2022; Vervaeke et al., 2012). In this stream of research, cognition is understood to be the result of self-organizing and scale-invariant bioeconomic processing that dynamically resolves trade-offs, which are inherent to any kind of (cognitive) organization and imposed by competing environmental demands for resilience in the face of change and behavioral efficiency (Andersen et al., 2022; Vervaeke et al., 2012). Without getting too deep into the weeds, this line of work establishes a plausible story for how our feelings and behaviors may be driven by our ability to grip and predict the world. We feel good when we improve our predictive grip and we feel bad when we fail to achieve a good predictive grip, which informs us about the current success of our selected behaviors and motivates us to adjust them accordingly (Andersen et al., 2022). Taking this view, the hedonic treadmill is the necessary result of self-organizing cognitive processing that continually balances demands for resilience in the face of change and behavioral efficiency to improve its predictive grip on the world.
What is the hedonic treadmill dilemma?
The hedonic treadmill dilemma tries to capture the difficult relationship that we humans seem to have with the idea of the hedonic treadmill. In particular, Brickman & Campbell (1971) already introduced the term in a negatively connoted way: “The pessimistic theme is that the nature of AL [adaptation-level] phenomena condemns men to live on a hedonic treadmill, to seek new levels of stimulation merely to maintain old levels of subjective pleasure, to never achieve any kind of permanent happiness or satisfaction“ (p. 289). Let’s unpack this negativity and try to be a little bit more precise about the nature of the dilemma that we are seeing.
One way to get at this, is through the perspective of agency. Humans tend to very much value and self-identify with agency but agency, as in the capacity for goal-directed action in an environment, is a paradoxical concept because it is self-terminating—the more successfully agency is expressed, the faster a desired goal state is reached where no further action is needed. In the extreme case, when a goal state is fully achieved, further action on the matter may not even be desirable because any additional action may undo prior progress. Thus, agency can only persist in situations where it remains constantly needed such as in open world environments where self-organizing individuals become imprinted with the open-ended goals of survival and reproduction. In such an environment, agency can evolve in so far as its phenotypic expression helps individuals’ differential survival and reproduction. For the purposes of this post, we call agency that evolved under such conditions “natural agency” and individuals expressing natural agency “natural agents”.
Against this backdrop, we can describe “the hedonic treadmill dilemma”, now somewhat more formally, as the fate of natural agents to never fully achieve the core goals that have been inscribed in them as part of their evolution: Either one abandons the goal of survival and dies, or one resigns oneself to the hedonic treadmill, where the core goal is simply to keep going—in either case, full goal satisfaction is denied. At the same time, the hedonic treadmill is a necessary and indispensable part of intelligent living and existence. In some sense, living cannot be without the hedonic treadmill. We simply can't have our cake and eat it, too. The dilemma is how we struggle to come to grips with this situation.
Reflecting on the Stories of Wile E. Coyote
The hedonic treadmill dilemma is well illustrated by the stories involving the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote—a perpetually hungry coyote who is destined to forever chase but never ultimately eat his final prey, the Road Runner. In the stories, Wile E. Coyote exhibits remarkable creativity in the way he sets up his traps, each attempt to catch the Road Runner is in some way or another even more cunning and ludicrous than the one before. Nevertheless, no matter the ingenuity, creativity, or any other kind of agency that Wile E. Coyote expresses, each story follows the same schema: Every attempt to eat the Road Runner is doomed to failure because the relationship between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner is simply set up in this way. So, to some degree the storyline broadly resembles the situation that we humans find ourselves in—we are forever destined to never achieve full satisfaction of our most primal goals, no matter what we do.
The stories of Wile E. Coyote are interesting for the purposes of this post because they illustrate, in a funny and surprisingly deep way, how never satisfied beings confronted with an impossible challenge may behave. In particular, we would like to highlight the way in which the stories play with three types of risk as central elements of the plot: Overshoot risks, technology risks, and extinction risks.
In the stories, Wile E. Coyote runs the perennial risk of overshooting and falling from a cliff. This motive is so prevalent that it has become a running gag in the show and to some degree an internet meme. Who doesn’t know the image of Wile E. Coyote running over the cliff then standing mid-air over a canyon only to realize that he is going to fall down pretty far? There are two levels of depth to this sketch that we want to highlight. First, it happens again and again, despite the fact that Wile E. Coyote is in many respects wickedly smart and in some respects clearly capable of adaptive and intelligent behavior. For instance, he can change tactics and devise highly creative plans to catch the Road Runner. However, the sketch remains plausible and never gets old because we can viscerally relate to countless similar situation where we, ourselves, have overshot the mark because we got too enthralled with the chase. Overshooting is a deeply human and widely shared experience. Second, the comedic element of the sketch is supported by the absurdity of the fact that Wile E. Coyote does not immediately fall down the cliff but keeps on running and standing in mid-air until he notices that the solid ground under his feet is gone. While this might simply look like a silly feature at first glance, it does point to something interesting. In many social situations overshoot only becomes overshoot, when it is recognized as such. For example, the work on preference falsification (“Preference Falsification,” 2023) attempts to explain sudden and surprising shifts in social sentiment as a result of private opinions being misrepresented for a long time due to social pressure. Put simply, sometimes the lid comes off only when enough people have realized that the lid is coming off. In a related vein, a well-known quote says “financial markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent” (O’Toole, 2011), pointing to a similar phenomenon in the financial sector.
Another signature element to the story plots is how Wile E. Coyote uses sophisticated technological contraptions in his attempts to catch the Road Runner. Hot-air balloons, rockets, large weights, boxing gloves mounted on a spring, almost anything that can conceivably be used to set up a trap has been used by Wile E. Coyote in various combinations. This vividly illustrates the ingenuity and lengths to which creatures driven by their urges will go to find a semblance of relief. That this road is a thorny one, is highlighted by the way most of Wile E. Coyote’s turn out to work against him in the end. The more ludicrous his plan and contraption, the more assured and devastating is his failure. Nevertheless, Wile E. Coyote will never give up or change his ways, because that’s not who he is. He is a hungry coyote, destined to forever chase but never eat his pray.
A key feature which keeps Wile E. Coyote’s wild stories plausible is the fact that he is a cartoon character that cannot die. No matter what he does, how hard his contraptions fail, how deep he falls, he will return back to the screen, alive and well, in one of the next scenes. It is this element of invincibility that allows the audience to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the absurdity of Wile E. Coyote's antics. Without it, the humor of the show would be lost. If every failure and every fall would mean pain, suffering, and hardship for him and the others around him, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner would not be a funny cartoon anymore but more like a dark tragedy. This leaves us with the question whether there is anything to learn here for our real-world decision-making? Do we want to be living like in a cartoon, a dark tragedy, or are there other ways of living with the hedonic treadmill that we have yet to discover?
With this post, we hope to stimulate personal reflections about what it means to be an intelligent living being and one’s own relation to life. Whereas the hedonic treadmill has so far been mostly negatively connoted, should we change this view, now that it seems plausible that its mechanism is at the heart of being a living being? Maybe we should be thankful for the experiences that it enables us to have? Maybe we can develop a healthier relationship to our primal urges that lead us to chase after the pray we will never get to eat? What could this look like? We need to find out and soon because living like we are in a cartoon does not seem to be a sustainable answer.
- Andersen, B. P., Miller, M., & Vervaeke, J. (2022). Predictive processing and relevance realization: Exploring convergent solutions to the frame problem. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-022-09850-6
- Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A symposium (pp. 287–305). Academic Press. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Hedonic-relativism-and-planning-the-good-society-Brickman-Campbell/705b7748c08bfdd1808d76a6b10a37842a2482ef
- Hayes, S. C. (2019). A liberated mind: How to pivot toward what matters. Avery.
- O’Toole, G. (2011, August 9). The Market Can Remain Irrational Longer Than You Can Remain Solvent. Quote Investigator. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/08/09/remain-solvent/
- Preference falsification. (2023). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Preference_falsification&oldid=1143977098
- Vervaeke, J., Lillicrap, T. P., & Richards, B. A. (2012). Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science. Journal of Logic and Computation, 22(1), 79–99. https://doi.org/10.1093/logcom/exp067
Tentative GPT4 summary:
This article examines the concept of the "hedonic treadmill" and its implications for human behavior and well-being. The hedonic treadmill refers to the phenomenon where our perceived well-being levels return to a stable set point despite temporary fluctuations. The article explores the reasons for the existence of the hedonic treadmill, its mechanisms, and its implications for intelligent living beings, particularly through the lens of the "hedonic treadmill dilemma." Furthermore, the article uses the story of Wile E. Coyote, a cartoon character who perpetually chases the unattainable Road Runner, as a metaphor for human behavior and the hedonic treadmill dilemma. The article concludes by encouraging personal reflection on what it means to be an intelligent living being and the potential implications of the hedonic treadmill for cause prioritization and macro-strategy.
Underlying Arguments and Examples
1. The hedonic treadmill exists due to the need for living beings to remain attentive to experiences that affect survival and reproduction. The ability to adapt quickly requires a gradient of experience that can guide and inform behavior.
2. The hedonic treadmill works through predictive processing and relevance realization. Living beings feel good when they improve their predictive grip on the world and feel bad when they fail to do so. This cognitive processing continually balances demands for resilience and behavioral efficiency.
3. The hedonic treadmill dilemma refers to the struggle of natural agents to never fully achieve their core goals due to the evolutionary constraints of survival and reproduction. This dilemma is illustrated through the stories of Wile E. Coyote, who can never catch the Road Runner despite his ingenuity and creativity.
4. Wile E. Coyote's stories highlight three types of risks: overshoot risks (e.g., running off a cliff), technology risks (e.g., sophisticated contraptions that backfire), and extinction risks (e.g., the character's invincibility, allowing for absurd scenarios). These risks reflect the challenges of living beings confronting the hedonic treadmill.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Key Points
- The concept of the hedonic treadmill provides a useful framework for understanding human behavior and well-being.
- The article incorporates cognitive science literature to explain the mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill.
- The use of Wile E. Coyote as a metaphor helps to illustrate the hedonic treadmill dilemma in an engaging and relatable way.
- The article does not provide concrete solutions for overcoming or addressing the hedonic treadmill dilemma.
- The link between the hedonic treadmill and cause prioritization or macro-strategy is not explicitly discussed in the article.
Links to AI Alignment
1. The hedonic treadmill dilemma can be related to AI alignment in terms of value alignment. If an AI system is designed to optimize human well-being, understanding the hedonic treadmill can help inform the design of AI systems that respect the dynamic nature of human well-being.
2. Overshoot risks, technology risks, and extinction risks highlighted in Wile E. Coyote's stories can be applied to AI safety concerns. For example, overshoot risks could be relevant to AI systems that over-optimize a specific goal, leading to unintended consequences. Technology risks can be seen in the development of advanced AI systems whose capabilities may outpace our ability to control them. Extinction risks relate to the potential catastrophic consequences of misaligned AI systems that could threaten human survival.
3. The concept of predictive processing and relevance realization in the hedonic treadmill can be applied to AI alignment by ensuring that AI systems maintain an appropriate balance between resilience and behavioral efficiency. This could help design AI systems that are robust and adaptable to changing environments while remaining aligned with human values.
4. Reflecting on the hedonic treadmill dilemma's implications for intelligent living beings can also inform the ethical considerations surrounding AI development. Understanding the complex relationship between well-being, goals, and the hedonic treadmill may provide insights into the moral and ethical responsibilities of AI developers and researchers.