Saturday, December 09, 2006


I've been pondering why I tend to turn down party invitations, and I think I've come to a conclusion: Rollerblades are no fun because they hurt my feet.

My older brother enjoys rollerblading. I don't. He asked me why once, and I told him I think it's pretty fun to go fast and stuff, but the rollerblades really hurt my feet. After a while, the amount of pain surpasses the amount of fun, and what started out enjoyable ends up being unbearable. It's no fun since it hurts so much. I asked my brother if his feet didn't hurt, and he said they did but that he didn't notice. It doesn't hurt since it's so much fun.

Putting aside the possibility that we may be wearing the wrong size rollerblades, something strange seems to be happening.

Every decision boils down to comparing the cost to the reward. If I invest money in a stock, I want the payoff to be higher than the investment. Otherwise, why bother? However, you can't always base your decisions on monetary value alone, especially when you're deciding whether or not to go rollerblading. In my example, rollerblading only costs time and pain, and the reward is fun. This is when you try to gauge the so-called utility of your decision, by assigning a utility value to each factor involved. This assignment is usually called the utility function. When you sit down and plan your investments, you have to build your utility function consciously, but when your brain tells you if something is fun or not, you're dealing with a subconscious utility function.

So you could say that the difference between my brother and I lies in our subconscious utility functions. Our brains could be wired so that whizzing along on rollerblades is assigned a utility of, say, 10. However, his brain only assigns a -5 to hurting feet, while mine gives it -20. Thus, my utility sum for rollerblading is -10, while his is a cool 5.

At this point, it may sound like I'm simply a wuss. In truth, hurting feet don't bother me; I once walked 3.5 kilometers to take the bus to work, with a sprained pinky toe on one foot and a blister on the other. I don't think I did it because I loved my job so much that I assigned some magical utility to it. Remember, I'm not necessarily talking about monetary value; I'm talking about utility values wired directly into my brain. If my job were really that fun, or if I really associated my pay with a high subconscious utility, I would have been happy at the end of the day. I wasn't. No, I think people have a varying threshold for discomfort in different contexts. That means the subconscious utility function doesn't just differ from person to person, it also differs from situation to situation.

This context-sensitive utility function is readily apparent in every undertaking of mine that is supposed to be fun, like a game or a party. When I'm supposed to be having fun, I have zero tolerance for boredom, failure or discomfort, and I don't want to invest too much time or money. That means if a video game has a steep learning curve and doesn't give me instant gratification while I'm learning, it's out the window before it can say "Game over". I have no interest at all in exploring tech trees, collecting experience points or memorizing jump puzzles. If the game involves tedious repetitive tasks, it's not a game anymore, it's work.

Unfortunately, parties tend to involve investing quite a lot of time and money, and in my experience they end up being quite boring, if not downright discomforting. On a good day, the sum utility is a big fat zero. It doesn't help that some people respond to hesitation with coercion: "Come on, don't be a bore and ruin it for the rest of us! Everyone else is going!" Do people really believe they can force someone to have fun? Frankly, that sort of behaviour appalls me; it's borderline mobbing.

In closing, let me put all this decision theory mumbo-jumbo in a way you might more easily grasp: I'm lazy.

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