A plague of anxiety afflicts the young today, as one mental health survey after another reveals. But how do we identify the markers of this growing affliction and thereby arrive at a clearer idea of its possible causes?
One commonly reported feature of anxiety is a keen sense of regret, whether occasioned by a poorly thought-through tweet, a major career decision, or even an inchoate fear of missing out (FOMO). We might attribute the prevalence of this disabling emotion to some of the usual suspects: frayed social institutions, growing isolation and loneliness, and the assorted and attendant ills of online life. But we also ought to give attention to how we now go about making decisions. Precisely because they shape our expectations of possible future outcomes, our dominant modes of practical reasoning play a surprisingly decisive role in setting us on the road to regret and other unhelpful emotional states.
How so? Take a common FOMO situation: a young man choosing what to do on Friday night. After a busy week, he is torn between many options. He has been invited to a party, which may be energizing and fun but possibly exhausting, depending on who else will be there. Since he is so tired, he might just stay in and read a book. Or else there is a movie he has been wanting to see, though he may or may not like it. What about dinner with a friend? It could be relaxing and engaging, but there is the annoying problem of choosing the friend and the restaurant. Choices, choices.
Suppose he decides to stay in and has a relaxing evening, reaching the end of the night feeling refreshed from his hard week—that is, until he checks his Instagram feed and sees pictures of his friends having fun at the party he decided not to attend. Faced with the realization of his unchosen alternative, he regrets that he has missed out. The alternative becomes present to him, precisely in his absence from it, leading him to long for some alternative history in which he attended a party.
The example is trivial, but we could repeat the exercise with countless other moments of decision, whether involving finances, social life, career, or health. Regret over forgone possibilities is not an unusual corollary of particular choices, but it has become an all-but-inevitable consequence of the ways we have been conditioned to make decisions.
For this we can largely thank modern decision theory. Developed in the aftermath of World War II by theorists like Leonard Savage, this theoretic approach demands that we consider all possibilities that might emerge from a moment of decision and select the one that likely affords the greatest benefit at the least risk. The key novelty here is not the utilitarian weighing of costs and benefits; it is the envisioning of all future possibilities. Ancient and medieval theories of action, by contrast, focused on realizing the end at which action aimed rather than summoning up an indefinite number of possible scenarios. Aristotle, when describing practical reason, used the example of crafts such as medicine and oratory for which the ends are already set—healing in the former case and persuasion in the latter. The craftsman might deliberate about a few possible means of realizing the goal of the craft, but choosing among alternatives is not central. Indeed, Aristotle considered practical reason to be an inquiry comparable to a logical syllogism.
Enter Girolamo Cardano, Pierre de Fermat, and Blaise Pascal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: all crucial figures in the rise of probability theory, from which decision theory would later arise. In probability theory, one thinks of all possible events or states as if they were lying together on the same plane, thereby acquiring a synoptic vision of future possibilities. This plane of possibilities leads to a spatialized, totalized vision of future times.
That totalizing vision gives a peculiar sense to these different possibilities. They are not just potentialities, some of which may be actualized through decision. Instead, all of them are present before the individual agent as if actualized in some possible world, just not the one in which the agent exists. As the philosopher Henri Bergson noted in regard to predicting future phenomena, “We shall then be present in imagination at the phenomenon we wish to foretell,” and after considering it, “we shall thrust the event again into the future and say that we have foreseen it, when in reality we have seen it.” In prediction, even in the prediction of one of an array of possibilities, one makes the future present.
Moreover, this kind of engagement with multiple futures is not limited to a single decision. Decision theory requires the agent to look ahead to decisions that may arise as a result of the agent’s first decision. And so the concept of time itself is reimagined. Older conceptions of time employed such metaphors as the river, the arrow, the cycle, and even an unfolding narrative. Now time is pictured as a decision tree on whose branches all future possibilities can be traced, as governed by ramifying checkpoints of decisions.
Elaborating imaginatively on this conception, the twentieth-century author Jorge Luis Borges depicted time as a garden of forking paths, ramifying and intersecting indefinitely and leading to many possible time series. This vision becomes instantiated in the technology of managerial charts, in which possible futures lie on a plane organized as a flow chart. If one combines the idea that all possibilities on the plane appear to be actual before one’s sight, with this arboreal organization, then one understands that as one goes down one path of the flow chart/decision tree, the other branches do not cease to exist. They persist, present to consciousness as actualized in alternative futures not chosen. Time becomes an infinite, forking series of possibilities, all of which seem realized in some way.
In short, we moderns have acquired a new experience of time, partly as a result of the development and application of probability and decision theory. That altered sense of temporality has, of course, been driven and amplified by new technologies, the key one being the Internet. Older forms of media certainly gave access to other forms of life and to information about unfolding events, but the Internet makes such information more immediate. We can constantly and instantaneously gain access to the price of stock we sell. An acquaintance’s fun night out at the party automatically appears in Instagram and Facebook feeds. The forgone alternative futures (now alternative “presents”) do not just lie passively in mind. They press themselves upon our attention. The absent becomes aggressively present.
This model of understanding time has entered the conceptual mainstream in many fields. In philosophy, some interpretations of the modal logic of multiple worlds see these alternative possible worlds as concrete. Certain interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest the simultaneous existence of alternative solutions to all of the possible quantum wave functions. Alternative futures and histories are widespread in science fiction, most famously in the works of Borges, but also in Star Trek, the writing of Philip K. Dick, Marvel’s Avengers movie series, and countless other popular entertainments. Our society is obsessed with alternative paths that haunt our actual present.
When other possible futures leap continuously into mind, regrets inevitably arise, regrets over alternative paths that continue to exist even if they are not actualized in one’s own life. Regret is a common experience today because people have a tendency to think of the goods that, by choice, have been forgone rather than the goods obtained. Economists and psychologists now realize that the counterfactual thinking of decision theory gives rise to regret, but decision theorists still failed to adequately account for the major role of regret in decision-making. It is this state of regret that characterizes the FOMO that so many young people experience. Though regret is intensified by social media technologies, the real culprit is the sense of temporality that has become embedded in them. It is the mode of deliberation that makes an array of futures ever present, forcing a person to generate a sense of alternative futures. It is this temporality that is at the heart of the paralyzing anxiety that now stalks young adults.
This essay is adapted from parts of Science and Christian Ethics and Tomorrow’s Troubles: Risk, Anxiety, and Prudence in an Age of Algorithmic Governance by Paul Scherz.