Ayn Rand in the Happy Lab
By Bryan Caplan
Ayn Rand made many uncharitable claims about her philosophical opponents, but this passage from Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged takes the cake:
They do not want to own your fortune, they want you to lose it; they do not want to succeed, they want you to fail; they do not want to live, they want you to die; they desire nothing, they hate existence, and they keep running, each trying not to learn that the object of his hatred is himself.
I couldn’t help but recall this passage while reading psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky‘s new The Myths of Happiness. Lyubomirsky ran an experiment where (a) participants were given a task, (b) a performance rating, and (c) their partner’s performance rating. The catch: The so-called “performance ratings” had nothing to do with performance. They were randomly assigned to measure subjects’ response to social comparison. Lyubomirsky:
After they were finished, we created a small deception by leading each volunteer to believe that he or she had performed very poorly on this task (that is, that they received an average rating from judges of 2 out of 7), but also to believe that the second volunteer had performed even worse than they had (receiving a disappointing rating of only 1). By contrast, a second group of volunteers were led to believe that they had performed extremely well (having obtained an average score of 6 out of 7), but that their peer had performed even better (receiving an outstanding score of 7)…
At first, the findings seem banal:
To analyze the data, I divided my participants into those who, before performing, reported being very happy and those who reported being relatively unhappy. When I examined the “before” and “after” data of my very happy participants, I found that those who learned that they had performed very poorly reported feeling less positive, less confident, and more sad after the study was over. Their reaction to ostensible failure was perfectly natural and not at all surprising. By contrast, the very happy participants who learned that they had performed extremely well (a 6 out of 7) subsequently felt better on all dimensions, and, notably, learning that someone did even better did not dilute the pleasure of their ostensible success.
Then things turn Randian:
The results for my unhappiest participants, however, were dramatic. Their reactions, it appears, were governed more by the reviews they had given their peers than by their own feedback. Indeed, the study paints a stark and quite unpleasant portrait of an unhappy person. My unhappiest volunteers reported feeling happier and more secure when they received a poor evaluation (but heard that their peer did even worse) than when they had received an excellent evaluation (but heard that their peer did even better). It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: “For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself… One’s friends must fail.”
Rand’s positive theory of happiness is largely wrong, as she could have readily discovered by carefully attending to her own bitter experiences. But lets look on Rand’s bright side. Outlandish though they seem, empirical psych supports some of her most Manichean accusations.