Monday, October 17, 2011

Satiation and satisfaction

I'm discussing Tibor Scitovsky's book The Joyless Economy: The Psychology of Human Satisfaction.

One of the most crucial questions to ask about our current economic situation is whether many of the needs we have can be satiated. When is enough enough?

Can these desires be satiated? One important question is whether people tended to focus on their position in the pecking order, or positional goods which by definition cannot be spread wider or satiated completely.

Scitovsky doubts this. He thinks that many kinds of desire for status and accomplishment can be satisfied, so long as it does not mean people just want to rank themselves on a one-dimensional scale. There can be many different sources of achievement and accomplishment that can bring recognition and respect from others, covering all sorts of micro-niches:

Thanks to the great multiplicity possible in such aims and the standards set for them, full status satisfaction in such form is within many people's reach. By contrast, when people seek status not in other people's recognition of their specific accomplishments, but in a general token, like income, which is supposed to express the value society places on their services, then status becomes a matter of ranking on a one-dimensional scale, and the seeking of status becomes a zero-sum game.

The big problem is we have increased the channels of stimulation, but not so much the content or the quality.

Technical progress, by freeing more and more time from work, increases man's demand for stimulation. The economy has responded by increasing our means of access to sources of stimulation, but it has failed to increase their stimulus content. For the source of stimulation and satisfaction is not the TV screen, the automobile, or the store, but the novelty to which they give access.

In many ways this is an optimistic thought. There is much scope for economic advancement and growth simply by increasing the quality and amount of genuine novelty and stimulation.

Fashion, of course, has always thrived on the right amount of novelty and proved endlessly fascinating to many women as a result, and Scitovsky sees much to praise.

Fashion mongering may seem wasteful, but the human need for variety and novelty is as legitimate as the desire to survive.

Formulaic approaches quickly get tired, however. Hollywood and the television sitcom need to come up with genuinely new stimulation and novelty, or people get bored.

Criticism of the American Way of Life

One cautionary note about Scitovsky's book, though. The psychological framework in the first part is immensely convincing. It just seems intuitively plausible. But he then goes on to a criticism of many aspects of American culture. Some of these sound dated, like his arguments that Americans do not bother to shop on the basis of price, or never complain in restaurants. Others sound to a contemporary ear a little crankily liberal. He blames America's puritan inheritance for its interest in bland food and suspicion of enjoyment.

One irate reviewer on Amazon says the whole book is a Carter-era throwback.

It isn't. It has much to say about the future. But the fact the later sections of the book are more controversial ought not to invalidate the earlier sections.

I am not wholly sure how much to rely on the psychology in a book which, after all, is more than thirty years old. I will have to look into contemporary takes on this. But what I find invigorating about this book is it unites several stands in my overall quest here.

It links time and bandwidth to larger changes in the economy and its evolution through different stages. It gives some sense of purpose and desire - people want the right balance of stimulation and comfort - and explains why. It suggests new pathways for the economy to develop, both new ways to find complexity and stimulation, new needs - more education to appreciate more kinds of stimulus - and new needs to keep stimulation calibrated at the right level. It explains some of the attraction of the arts - the right degree of bewildering novelty.

And it also explains what happens when people do not have the skills or education to benefit from these changes. People take refuge in low-skill, low-engagement activities like shopping or tv. Whenever there is a riot on tv, the reporters always seem to find youths who claim "there's nothing to do round here".

The future is new forms of flow.

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