An Ounce of Pleasure, a Gallon of Pain

Lecturing on divorce today, I was reminded of the refrain in Clay Walker‘s song, Then What: “Then what, what you gonna do, when the new wears off and the old shines through, and it ain’t really love and it ain’t really lust, and you ain’t anybody anyone’s gonna trust. … When you can’t turn back for the bridges you burn….” The song is talking, of course, about a man about to engage in an extramarital affair.

The guy in the song is willing to throw over his marriage, even though he may know that in the future, the affair will come to nothing and he will lose his wife and family. He values the present pleasure much, much more than he worries about the future pain. It’s not just that he has a high discount rate; he values pleasure now much more than he is bothered by pain next year — even though, if he were asked today to compare an affair three years from now to the pain it would cause him the following year, he would choose not to have the affair. We economists call this strange valuation of present and future hyperbolic discounting – people overemphasize current pleasure and pain in comparing actions at different points in time.


Two economists were walking along a busy street. One economist calls out in amazement, "Hey, look! There's a one hundred dollar bill in the street and people are walking right over it." The second economist says in response, "No there's not - if there were - someone would have picked it up by now."

Ellliott has it right - the rational thought explanation is not what it's cracked up to be - as if humans are at all rational - and economists can't explain every silly ass human behavior with data and graphs. I mean, does the Jolly Blogger's comment really make sense? Do rational people really think that way? And does Jolly say that with an aristocratic accent or is the ascot tied too tightly? No personal affront - I'm sure that he's/she's a nice person.


The term "hyperbolic discounting" is just a fiction that economists use to explain away actions that don't reflect their models of a rational decision-maker. Given that humans are a product of natural selection, it should be obvious that we will be lacking in rationality when making decisions about sex. The brain mechanisms for sex drive influence or even take over our other cognitive apparatus.

Othar Hugh Manati

Maybe that's why the Apostle Paul said, "What I would do, I do not; and what I would not do, those things I do."

Avoid what you enjoy and do what repulses you.

Well, I'm sold, where do I sign up?

Thomas B.

Riffing on Aaron's comment...

If heaven is infinite pleasure and hell is infinite pain, hyperbolic discounting would fail to explain why Christians succumb to temptation. No matter what percentage you use to discount "infinite," you still end up with infinite.

This could be explained one of two ways. Perhaps hyperbolic discounting is not an informative account of human behavior. On the other hand, perhaps most Christians secretly realize heaven and hell are just childhood myths.

Jolly Bloger

Wow, where did all this religious nonsense come from? I thought economics was a rational pursuit.

I wonder if a similar process works in reverse? I mean, how do we value past pleasure and pain? If we discount future payments for present goods (temptation), will we discount the past good when it comes time for the present payment? And do we discount past pain if it has led to present pleasure?

This raises the question: if we are to try to act rationally, then whose happiness should we seek to maximize? Our present or future selves? How far in the future?


Yesterday I heard Dan Gilbert, of Stumbling on Happiness fame, give a talk about how bad we are at forecasting how happy we will be in the future. If I understand Gilbert correctly (highly questionable), it is likely that if the guy has the affair and he ruins his life, he will end up saying he made the right choice -- he will be able to rationalize the bad outcome, and be happy. So maybe there are too few affairs, despite hyperbolic discounting?


It is my oppinion that some of this hyperbolic discounting may have something to do with the fractal and non-uniform functioning of your brain.
Gambling, extra-merital affairs, high-risk investments, stealing, and most other examples of this effect deal not with certain future pain, but rather possible future pain. These are therefore percieced as dangerous situations by the simpler portions of your brain. In dangerous situations you generate adrinalin, as well as (delayed and to a lesser degree) sex hormones.
In a situation where adrinaline is produced, your planning horizenes are drastically shortened. This makes a great deal of sense from an evolutionary perspective as there is no use planning for the next season while there is a tiger in you tent (or whatever).
An interesting feature of this line of behavior is that obaying the emediate compulsion is habit forming even if you get punished later EVERY TIME.
I believe that this is because; even if you suffer later, your trucated planning horizen means that the primitive parts of your mind recall only the emediate reward, not the longer ranging consequences.
One last thing: since adrinalin is itself addictive, you could lose gambling every time, and it could still be habit forming. The fact that you might win every once in a while just makes it way more so.



I wonder if another way to look at all of this is to ask whether it is just the attraction TO pleasure...or the wish to END the torment of resisting temptation that is cause for us giving in?

It's not just that the PLEASURE seems worth the (hyperbolically discounted) consequences, but that the PAIN of resisting the pleasure is so great that one feels he/she must give in to stop the torment.

I can remember actually hyperventilating in college over some incredibly sexy older woman that put every single one of my hormones at the redline. I'd never actually tremebled with desire before. I'm afraid that my failure to act was more a function of not knowing how to pursue matters, rather than any faith or integrity. But in any case, it is one less then to regret (assuming I would have regretted it!). I understood then that resisting temptation could be a very tormenting thing...and perhaps a good "justification" for giving in.



As I see marriage vis-a-vis divorce, it comes down to one's view of the purpose(s) of marriage. Is it primarily intended to bring about personal fulfillment through relationship (spouse [including sex, of course], children, parents) or is it intended to establish a stable and safe arena where children can be reared and the elderly family members cared for, for the good of society? Certainly these two are not mutually exclusive, but usually one is dominant.

If the former is the dominant concern, when a marriage has lost the zing, it's much harder to muster up motivation to to skip the fling ... or to resist trading in one's spouse for a different (sexier, less cantankerous, whatever) model.

If the latter is the dominant concern, reasons and motivations abound for resisting the fleeting temptations that may lead to long-term marital trouble and divorce. Some individuals may even fall prey to these desires of the heart (or genitals) in violation of what they desire with their mind. But in so doing, they're being inconsistent with their highest priorities, whereas those in the former category and being consistent with their priorities.



Zach/JD, what condescenion do you find in what I wrote? Can you not distinguish between playfulness (the part about the economists) and sincerity? In any case, I certainly meant no condescenion. I simply found the intersection between economic thought and mystical thought quite interesting.

As for me having "wonderful insight," why, yes...yes, I do. Thank you. And I imagine God gave you some wonderful insights also (although your most recent post is not one of them).

As for your comments about blaming God, you do know, don't you, that if God just made it where you felt like doing the right thing all the time (or, for that matter, took the position that whatever you did was fine with Him), there would be no such thing as right or wrong.

I mean, God could have made it a whole lot easier. But we'd not be truly free agents (which is not the same as a secret agent).

So, let's put the blame where it goes. We must be tested if we are to discern where our weaknesses are, what our breaking points are, and so forth. And if we believe that God will not tempt us above that we are able to bear...then we cannot blame Him for our own hyperbolic discounting.

Hope you get to feeling better!



People, calm down. I'm pretty sure AaronS was riffing off of something Dubner or Levitt once posted about economists not being religious.


What about the discount for the chance that it won't cause any pain, in which case any amount of cheating will be an economic benefit?

And to account for the hyperbole, perhaps the cheater is overconfident in his spouse's ability to learn of and punish an affair, whereas in the present, he can more accurately determine that the affair will go unnoticed and end on its own terms.


There is just no way I can follow the first comment.

Steven Elrod

AaronS- What the hell are you talking about?


I'm more inclined to AaronS's analysis (though sorry to say I can't tell if he's being sarcastic?!)- the real word for it is hedonism- if it feels good, do- which is precisely a lack of judgement on the guy's part, therefore there is no calculus to be analyzed- the profound reason why economics fails to explain human behavior is that humans can intentionally act against their own interests (which is why we have free will)- that being said, the lyrics to that song are cool- indeed the arts have much more explanatory value of human nature than science does


Economists do a ton of fantastic to work in developing countries that are trapped in poverty. If that is not in line with Jesus' teachings in the bible and what he claimed about himself (good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, healing of the broken, end of oppression), I don't know what is.


AaronS, your point would be much better made without the condescension, I think.

Abram Nichols

Seinfeld had a good bit along these lines: nighttime guy versus morning guy. Morning guy would always get ticked off at nighttime guy, as nighttime guy would stay out too late, drink too much, and morning guy would have to pay the consequences.

It's tough for people to think of their own lives in economic terms. We are often advised to "live each day as if it were your last," and in that case, why not stay out late, why not have sex with whatever willing female comes along?

Your money will surely accumulate interest if you leave it in the bank (and won't otherwise), but will you suffer tomorrow for a decision made today? Or will you be glad you took the plunge? It's a little more subjective.


Christians aren't the only ones that talk about this. Buddhists warn you to remember that all things, including feelings and pleasure, are impermanent. Best not to hold on to such worldly things.


Well, unlike Aaron, I don't blame Satan. I blame God. God created us with such a strong desire for sex that the opportunity to engage in such with a new partner creates such a hormonal imbalance that it becomes impossible to evaluate the medium or long-term consequences of our actions.

I mean, I can picture Him up there, leaning over to Gabriel and saying "Hey Gabe - check this out. I've given them strict instructions about how to live life according to My rules, but... hee hee... I've also made their higher brain functions nearly shut down in the face of imminent sexual intercourse."