Synthetic Happiness or Sour Grapes?

As children, the word, “bedtime” held but one meaning: fables that intensified our imagination and simultaneously taught us timeless morals. One such famous tale was that of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes.”

“One hot summer’s day a fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch.  Just the thing to quench my thirst, quoth he.  Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch … again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: I am sure they are sour [1].”

The moral was literatim – it is easy to despise what you cannot have – and it has been widely disseminated over the centuries. Recently, in a twist to this moral, Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard and author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggested that although we don’t exclusively despise what we cannot have, we do attain happiness with what we have.

Amongst many neurological executive functions, the prefrontal cortex in our brain is responsible for employing and integrating past knowledge with our current circumstances and stimulating an outcome [2]. For example, we may not have tasted Bertie Bott’s vomit-flavoured jellybeans from Harry Potter, but our immediate reaction of its consumption would be disgust [3]. However, we have been shown to overestimate the effect of certain events, resulting in exaggerated expectations. Social and cognitive psychologists Gilbert and Wilson[2]  have termed this gap between our predictions and real experiences as “impact bias.” Impact refers to our errors in estimating the intensity and duration of our emotions, and bias refers to our probability of making the mistake in judgement [4]. Experiments have proven that both negative and positive events in our lives, such as winning a lottery, loss of a loved one, gaining a promotion, or failing midterms in a semester, all have a lesser impact than expected [4]. Gilbert has attributed this lowering of impact to our “psychological immune system,” which is a system of primarily unconscious cognitive mechanisms that enable us to modify our views of the world towards a positive outlook to our future [2]. This form of happiness – generated by our psychological immune system when we don’t get what we want – is termed as, “synthetic happiness.”

The fox in our beloved fable experiences synthetic happiness when he rejects the grapes due to their sourness. Historically, synthetic happiness has been rejected in the favour of natural happiness. However, this gives rise to a question: what if the fox genuinely believed that not eating the grapes would lead to a “happier” outcome? Gilbert answers this with the application of the “free choice paradigm.” An example of this paradigm would involve participants ranking five sculptures in the order of the most to the least liked [5]. Then, the participants are provided with a choice to take either the second or the third-ranked sculpture with them [5]. Unequivocally, the participants chose the higher ranked sculpture. However, some participants were gifted the third-ranked sculpture instead of the second-ranked sculpture. After a fixed time period to cognitively recognize ownership of the received object, the same five sculptures are presented to the participants for them to rank again [5]. Consequently, the sculpture that was gifted to the participants had a higher ranking than the non-gifted sculpture in the second round evaluation. The results of this experiment remain consistent over many studies conducted in different groups [2]. However, critics claimed a case of sour grapes and implied that the rankings changed because the gifted sculpture was considered a possession and a part of social identity, which they would instinctively protect [2].

In an effort to resolve the issue of whether the fox was actually synthesizing happiness, Gilbert performed the same experiment using Monet prints with a group of patients suffering from Korsakoff’s syndrome, a polyneuritic psychosis that symptomizes as anterograde amnesia [5]. Their inability to form new memories, as well as the duration of extinction of new memories was tested and the researchers utilized that as time period between the two phases of the experiment.[3]  In the first phase, the patients were asked to rank the paintings as previously discussed and after the ranking, they were told that the prints they were gifted, of higher or lower rank, would be mailed to them a few weeks later [5]. After thirty minutes, the researchers returned, re-introduced themselves and asked the patients if they remember which of the Monet prints had they chosen [5]. It was determined that the probability of the patient choosing the right print was equivalent to chance guessing, whereas control participants had been able to recall their earlier choice in other studies [5]. The patients with amnesia also modified their ranking to accredit a higher rank to the painting they were gifted than the one they did not receive [5]. The experiment was repeated and the results further implied the concept of synthetic happiness being on par with natural happiness. Gilbert’s experiment suggests that the Monet paintings that were taken away from the participants were not sour grapes; their preference for the paintings they were gifted was a product of synthetic happiness.

Synthetic happiness allows our fox to adjust his world-view, resulting in an impact bias between his predicted feelings after the loss of the grapes and his actual feelings. Hence, our psychological immune system modulates our predictions of emotional responses to future events, but we tend to underestimate the probability of external factors influencing our emotions. Further, we miscalculate rapidity of emotional recovery, especially in predicting emotions during future negative life events due to the overestimation of impact bias [2].

Innovative research continues into theories of underestimation of sub-conscious accommodation of inevitability of life-events and advantages of impact bias. Although the grapes may not have been sour, the fox may have continued his stroll without them on that fine summer’s day, happy as can possibly be.


  1.  Aesop’s Fables. “The Fox and the Grapes.” Accessed January 22, 2013.
  2. TED. “Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness.” Accessed January 22, 2013.
  3. Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.
  4. Gertner, John. “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.” New York Times, September 7, 2003.
  5. Lieberman, Matthew, Ochsner, Kevin, Gilbert, Daniel and Daniel Schacter. ” Do Amnesics       Exhibit Cognitive Dissonance Reduction? The Role of Explicit Memory and Attention in     Attitude Change.” Psychological Science 12(2001): 135-140.
  • Image Credit (Creative Commons): Efeikiss. 2012. “The Fox and The Grapes.” Flickr, accessed    January 23, 2013.
  • Image Credit (Creative Commons): Live Life Happy. 2012. ” Happiness is not determined by       what’s happening around you, but rather what’s happening inside you.” Flickr, accessed January 23, 2013.

Hely Shah is an undergraduate student at University of Calgary majoring in Neuroscience. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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