Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Shadow Of The Future: Why Living Each Day Like It's Your Last Is A Bad Idea

Alright, as we all know, Indians and Pakistanis love stereotyping each other. Well I too am going to join in the fun. After reading this ridiculous post from Amit Varma, I'm going to conclude that all Indians aspire to be extremely lame motivational speakers. Below I reproduce the post in question, which starts off innocuously enough discussing that particle accelerator that has the world of physics buzzing, but ends up with a life lesson from Hallmark. (As an aside, please read this hilarious column by Gail Collins in the NYT a couple of weeks ago, also talking about this Hadron Collider thing).
"As you know," my friend Rahul writes in, "the Large Hadron Collider starts its experiments on Wednesday. The most extreme view is that the world will end. I don't believe that for a second. But you wonder: How anti-climactic would it be if the world actually ended, and we never did get around to doing all those things we said we'd do if we knew our date of extinction?"

I used the limited sample size of the one car accident I've been in to tell him that if the world did end, we would probably be dead before we knew what was happening, with no time for any last thoughts. But I have two questions for you?

1] If the world was to end, would you prefer that it end suddenly without your being aware of it, or that you had some time to contemplate your end, and maybe do some things still left undone?

2] If your answer is that you'd like some time, how much time would you like?

Okay, now here's the deal: you've got that time. It starts now.

As I told Nikhil, "UFFFF! I'm so fucking on this RIGHT NOW. Today is the first day of the rest of my life etc etc."

To be serious for a second, I want to tackle this notion of "living every day like it's your last". It is a common refrain that we must not get mired in the nitty gritty routine of life, and seek to enjoy each day to the fullest because we will not know when it will all end. A day is wasted if you have no extracted the full toll of happiness possible from that day.

One of the earliest philosophical exponents of this view (of the ones I am familiar with anyway) was the great Stoic philosopher, Seneca. Below I reproduce a beautiful little excerpt detailing the view I described above:
No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: "I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!" What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: "After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties." And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!"

The problem with this view is that living each day like it's your last is a recipe for social anarchy, chaos and unmitigated disaster. Allow me to elaborate.

One of the core tenets of the political economy literature on government and its role, as well as the neoliberal institutionalist literature in IR, is the shadow of the future. This concept refers to the fact that when we are considering the costs and benefits of our actions, we think both in terms of immediate costs and benefits, and future costs and benefits. How much into the future? Well that depends from person to person, or to put in academic jargon, each actor's discount rate can vary. The point to note is only that the future does cast a "shadow" on our present decision-making.

As it turns out, the shadow of the future is a very useful thing in terms of our ability as social agents to live relatively peacefully and cooperatively in large groups. To see why, we will have to dip into some very elementary game theory (please don't stop reading, I promise there will be no jargon).

Let us start with the standard Prisoner's Dilemma. If you were an English major in college, here's Wiki's intro to the game:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies ("defects") for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The answer to that is that both will choose to betray the other, or defect. This is a suboptimal situation because had they both remained silent, or cooperated, the best "overall" outcome would have been achieved: only six months in jail for each. As it stands, that outcome is impossible, because there is no reason to trust the other person, and without a guarantee that the other person is going to cooperate, each player's best strategy is to defect (because if you try to be nice and cooperate, and the other guy screws you, you attain the wost possible outcome of a ten-year sentence). The lesson? Actions that may be individually rational are socially suboptimal when there is no trust.

This situation is thought to mirror real-world interactions, whereby without some guarantee that the other person is not going to harm you, you will not risk greater costs to yourself when interacting with that person. Consider a simple exchange of goods. If the consumer doesn't believe that the shopkeeper will deliver his groceries, or the shopkeeper doesn't believe that he will not get paid if he delivers, then there will be no exchange of groceries for money. Both will be worse off as a result, but there's simply nothing they can do absent some guarantee that the money will be transferred and the groceries will be delivered (let us assume for the moment that there is no government or legal body to enforce the payment for or delivery of groceries).

Now what can alleviate this problem? The shadow of the future. If you consider the future costs and benefits of your actions, then you are more likely to cooperate with someone. To use the above example, the consumer will want to pay the shopkeeper for the groceries even if he has an opportunity to cheat and not pay because he knows that if he does cheat, he will not get groceries from this shop ever again. The future costs of defection push him to cooperate in the present. Put differently, the results of an iterated and repeated game of PD is different than the one-shot game of PD: in the former, there is cooperation; in the latter there is not.

So far the analysis has involved just two people. Let's complicate things a little bit, and move on to groups. In groups, the role of information is key. Without information, the incentive to defect that was evident in the one-shot PD returns. For instance, the consumer in the above example, even when thinking about the future, can choose to not pay the grocer if there are other grocers to go to (which there will be in a group), gain from cheating in the present, and not get punished for his defection. So he cheats in the present, doesn't get punished for it in the future, and society is worse off. The one thing that can preclude the consumer's defection is information of his past actions: if all the grocers in the group could somehow be made aware that this consumer is a cheat, then the consumer would not defect.

Think about how much this mirrors certain facts about the world. How much value do individuals, corporations, governments, and even sports teams place in not being known as a cheat? A lot. People don't want to be known as a cheat because they don't want to be shut out from the gains of cooperation in the future. Put somewhat glibly, I will not slap you today, even if I really want to, because in all likelihood I will see you, and many others, in the future, and you will make sure that I am punished for my slapping you. This is what the shadow of the future means in a group: I will not cheat today - even if I can, and even if cheating today pays more than cooperating today - because the losses of the future cooperation foregone once word of my cheating gets out will be too costly for the immediate benefits of cheating to be worth it. Put differently, I choose long term gain over short term gain, because I know once information spreads of how I got my short term gain, I will never see any long term gain again. (This is of course a highly stylized view of the world, but as long as you can see that it's an illustration of reality, not a description of it, we're all on the same page).

What the hell does this all have to do with "living each day like your last"? EVERYTHING. If you live each day like your last, you discount the future costs of your actions today. Again, to be glib, if I actually live like today is my last day, I am bound to do some socially harmful things: stealing a Mars bar from the store, or hitting a coworker I do not like. Why not? I don't have anything to lose, do I? It's not as if I'm going to be punished tomorrow, because remember, there is no tomorrow. Under those circumstances, I am better off doing what makes me happy today, even if it makes many people around me quite unhappy.

Without the shadow of the future, social anarchy would result. Everyone would steal their own Mars bar, so to speak. That human beings have the capacity to be "good" is I am sure true but also beside the point: the point is only that we are "better" when we contemplate future costs to actions that may be strictly rational in the present.

Further reading:

Robert Axelrod (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Kenneth A. Oye (1985). “Explaining Cooperation Under Anarchy: Hypotheses and Strategies,” World Politics, 38:1.

Robert Keohane (1984). After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mancur Olson (1993). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development," American Political Science Review 87:3.


bubs said...

I'm going to leave what will surely be the only comment on this post. Cliff notes for those readers with a short attention span: Don't live every day like its your last cuz that will like fuck society up and shit.

Ahsan said...

Hahahahahahahahhaa. When you put it like that, I feel as if I have wasted 90 minutes of my life. What would Seneca say?

Also, thank you for giving me my lecture notes ("Don't live every day like its your last cuz that will like fuck society up and shit") for when I TA a Political Economy course this quarter: I've definitely got the shadow-of-the-future week covered now.

naa said...

"I will not slap you today, even if I really want to, because in all likelihood I will see you, and many others, in the future, and you will make sure that I am punished for my slapping you."

To help illustrate the sentence please see this video.


P.S. Ahsan I really do think you wasted 90 minutes of your life.

Rabia said...

Seneca was sort of a dick because of the way he helped Nero become emperor and supported him even though he was a total punk. But I do like some of the stuff he writes. This letter, in particular, reminded me a lot of the dilemma that liberals in Pakistan face.

adeel said...

All this assumes everyone is inherently and completely self motivated. Personally I think quite a large pocket of people would behave altruistically even in the absence of 'shadow of the future'. (ie living life to the fullest would mean definitely paying the grocer so he can feed his family and definitely not slapping my co worker so as i leave this world i know i didnt harm someones self esteem). Is this perhaps because you're assuming all situations are zero sum games?

Ahsan said...

Hahahaha. With the shadow of the future being described as "Don't live every day like its your last cuz that will like fuck society up and shit" and Seneca being characterized as "kind of a dick" and Nero as "a total punk", I can now see what it would be like to have George W. Bush as a professor.

Anonymous said...

you have definitely wasted 90 mins of your life...

Ahsan said...


A few points. First, you're right that this is highly stylized view of the world assumes self-interested and egoist preferences for actors. The Prisoner's Dilemma, as a one-shot game at least, is by definition a zero-sum game.

Second, from a theoretical point of view, it is much more interesting to see whether or not cooperation can result from non-altruistic actors than from altruistic actors. When you assume altruistic motives, you are basically assuming away the problem: *of course* actors will cooperate if they want to cooperate. That's a tautology. But the point about the repeated PD (with sufficiently high discount rates, which is something I glossed over in the post because I didn't want to over-complicate the analysis) is that you can get cooperation even when actors are self-interested. That's an interesting outcome.

Third, I'm not sure I buy your argument that a "large pocket of people" would behave altruistically without concern for the future. One way to get at this would be to analyze human behavior when the future is heavily discounted i.e. when the shadow of the future is very short. This emerges during times of crisis (war, natural disaster, etc). Think about how human beings behave when they know that there is no punishment in the future for actions taken in the present.

sana said...

there's a difference between acting like the world is going to end tomorrow and just realizing that it's going to end eventually. one could argue that by getting caught up in the mundane and shoving your dreams to the bottom of the things-to-do-after-retirement list, you're actually being ignorant of this shadow of the future you speak of.

Ahsan said...


The "world ending tomorrow" logic is obviously stylized to prove a point. And in any event, I agree with the assertion that we shouldn't leave till retirement things we really want, or want to do. But in almost all occasions, if a goal is truly worth having, it involves the mundane.

Let me give you a personal example. It is my dream to teach Political Science and Intl Relations at university level. To be able to attain that dream, I have to get a PhD. Don't get me wrong; I really love being at grad school. But if you were to tell me "Ahsan, you have two options. In the first, you get to your goal after 5-7 years of destitute poverty, an overworked schedule, dealing with annoying undergrads and Master's students who constantly want their grades changed, no health care insurance, and brutally cold weather. In the second, you get to your goal now." Which do you think I would pick? The point, however, is that whether it's the dream job or the dream yacht or the dream whatever, some element of drudgery is necessary.

Of course, there is something to be said for leaving it too late. The banker who tells himself "Alright, just one more year, and then I'm done, and living in the Hamptons for the rest of my life" but can't say no to a 30% raise is mired in a vicious cycle, and I think that's the type of situation you're getting at.

In general though, it is an eminently good thing that many of our most treasured and valued goals are only attainable well into the future: it keeps us working hard, it keeps us from crime and socially undesirable behavior, and it ensures a relatively peaceful and cooperative society.

adeel said...

Hey Ahsan, agree with your point 2 for sure. Point 3 I think highlights that it's just a personal value judgement issue...in times of war/natural disaster, yes, most act in self interest, but then some act for others (Hotel Rwanda, Schindlers List) and I believe there's more of these of people around than we assume (because they don't go about advertising their deeds).