Tag Archives: #paradox

1300 Spe­cies, 2400 Genes, 21 Mu­seums, And 40 Years: the Trop­ical Di­versity Para­dox Ad­dressed By a Mul­tina­tional Team of Sci­ent­ist (Biology)

Every school kid learns where the hotspots of animal and plant diversity are – like the Amazon rainforest – but this week scientists report that new species actually form there less often than in coldspots. Coldspots aren’t actually cold, but are places like deserts and mountaintops that don’t have a lot of species but do have a lot of opportunity.

This paradox of diversity – that new species form away from tropical diversity hotspots – was reported this week in the journal Science. The multinational team of scientists studied diversity in a major group of tropical birds. They found that cold spots might be extreme with dry, unstable environments but they are also relatively empty, giving new species the elbow room to evolve. 

In contrast, hotspots like the Amazon are the result of the gradual accumulation of species over time. One of the senior authors on the study, Dr. Robb Brumfield, pointed out that this means that conservation efforts to save the rapidly changing tropical landscape need to focus “not only on the species-rich Amazon but also the generators of that diversity, like the wind-swept, cold puna of the Andes Mountains.” 

“This study also demonstrates that even for well-studied groups like birds, genomic data is completely changing our perspective about true levels of species diversity, particularly in tropical areas,” says a co-author of the study Alexandre Aleixo from the Natural History Museum of Finland (LUOMUS), University of Helsinki.

“For about 12% of the species sampled with more than a single individual in our study, intraspecific genomic divergences were greater than those between closely related species, indicating the existence of many “hidden” species yet to be named and formally described”. 

Describing new bird species has been one of the main targets of Aleixo´s Laboratory of Avian Diversity (LADY), which has moved to LUOMUS in 2019. Since 2012, his lab led the description of no less than seven new bird species to science, in addition to publishing studies supporting the recognition of dozens of “hidden” species previously regarded as subspecies. 

“The results of this recent study involving such an incredible number of species, museum specimens, and very significant parts of their genomes, consist on a true `road map´ for finding and describing new species, and we are already working on it!” says Aleixo. 

Local sci­ent­ists play a key role in recording biod­iversity           

This paradox was revealed because of the dozens of natural history museums and museum researchers working for decades in tough conditions on shoestring budgets to document the rapidly disappearing diversity of the tropics. Some of the collections contributing to this paper, including the Goeldi Museum in Brazil, are now facing major budget and staff cuts that jeopardize their roles as key repositories of information and samples from Neotropical environments. The leads on the paper – Dr. Michael Harvey (UT El Paso) and Dr. Gustavo Bravo (Harvard) have themselves spent many months lugging around the quintessential, heavy dewars used to preserve samples up remote streams in Amazonia and into rugged mountain ranges in the Andes. 

Dr. Harvey said “these birds represent an incredible amount of diversity sampled, roughly 1 out of every three species of birds in the American tropics” and Dr. Bravo agreed, “Yes, we were only able to do this because of the hard work of numerous local scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying and preserving this diversity.”  

Notably, these collecting trips and research teams are increasingly led by ornithologists from groups underrepresented in the sciences, including Latinx and women researchers. Many of the researchers involved in the study are from Latin America (Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela) and recent teams fielded by the renowned Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University have been women-led. 

“This paper marks not only a change in our understanding of evolution in the tropics but also in acknowledgement and valuation of the diversity of culture, expertise, and perspective in the field of ornithology” says another senior author on the paper, Dr. Liz Derryberry

Ori­ginal art­icle:

The evolution of a tropical biodiversity hotspot
Authors: Harvey MG, Bravo GA, Claramunt S, Cuervo AM, Derryberry GE, Battilana J, Seeholzer GF, Shearer McKay J, O’Meara BC, Faircloth BC, Edwards SV, Pérez-Emán J, Moyle RG, Sheldon FH, Aleixo A, Smith BT, Chesser RT, Silveira LF, Cracraft J, Brumfield RT, Derryberry EP. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz6970

Provided by University of Helsinki

What Is Stability-instability Paradox? (Politics)

The stability-instability paradox is an international relations theory regarding the effect of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. It states that when two countries each have nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases.


This occurs because rational actors want to avoid nuclear wars, and thus they neither start major conflicts nor allow minor conflicts to escalate into major conflicts„thus making it safe to engage in minor conflicts.

For instance, during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union never engaged each other in warfare, but fought proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Angola, the Middle East, Nicaragua and Afghanistan and spent substantial amounts of money and manpower on gaining relative influence over the third world.

A study published in the journal of conflict resolution in 2009 quantitatively evaluated the nuclear peace hypothesis, and found support for the existence of the stability-instability paradox. The study determined that while nuclear weapons promote strategic stability, and prevent large scale wars, they simultaneously allow for more lower intensity conflicts. When a nuclear monopoly exists between two states, and their opponent does not, there is a greater chance of war.

In contrast, when there is mutual nuclear weapon ownership with both states possessing nuclear weapons, the odds of war drop precipitously.

Reference: Robert Rauchhaus, “Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis: A Quantitative Approach”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0022002708330387 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022002708330387

© 2020 Paradox Parkway. All Rights Reserved.

Using Game-theory To Look For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Astronomy)

Astronomer Eamonn Kerins with the University of Manchester has developed an approach to looking for intelligent extraterrestrial beings on other planets that involves using game theory. He has written a paper describing his ideas and has uploaded it to the arXiv preprint server.

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

The current approach to looking for intelligent life on other planets is basically two-pronged. One approach involves scanning the skies looking for signals from space that could be created by intelligent beings. The other involves scanning the sky for evidence of exoplanets that appear to be habitable. Kerins suggests that a way to meld the two approaches into a logical systematic search for extraterrestrial intelligence is to use some of the logic inherent in game theory.

Kerins starts by noting that it seems possible that the reason scientists on Earth have not discovered signals from beings on other planets is because they are not sending any, fearing that doing so might draw the attention of unfriendly adversaries. He further suggests that if others are out there, they might be listening just as intently as we are. This leads to the SETI paradox, in which everyone is listening but no one is sending. And it also leads to the question of how such a paradox could be resolved. He notes that game theory suggests that both parties should agree that the party with more access to information should be the one that transmits first to the other.

Kerins also suggests that both parties in such a situation try to use what he describes as “common-denominator information” to decide whether to send a target a signal. Such information, he notes, should be in a form that either party could recognize. He further notes that such signaling should begin with something very basic, like transit signal strength (the amount of starlight that is blocked by a planet as it moves in front of its star). Such a signal, he notes, is easy to measure and is also independent of any life forms that might be residing on a given planet. This approach would also narrow the search to only those planets that lie in a plane relative to their star compared to ours, and vice versa.

He concludes that following such an approach based on data currently available would narrow the search to just one exoplanet: K2-155d. He suggests that because it is more visible to us than the other way around, that we be the first to send a signal—and then to watch and listen for any reply.

References: Eamonn Kerins. Mutual detectability: a targeted SETI strategy that avoids the SETI Paradox, arXiv:2010.04089 [astro-ph.EP] , arxiv.org/abs/2010.04089 https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.04089

This article is republished here from phys.org under common creative licenses

Scientists Explain The Paradox Of Quantum Forces In Nanodevices (Quantum)

Researchers proposed a new approach to describe the interaction of metals with electromagnetic fluctuations (i.e., with random bursts of electric and magnetic fields).

Researchers from Peter the Great St.Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU) proposed a new approach to describe the interaction of metals with electromagnetic fluctuations (i.e., with random bursts of electric and magnetic fields). The obtained results have great potential for application in both fundamental physics and for creating nanodevices for various purposes. The article was published in the International Journal “European Physical Journal C”.

Scientists proposed a new approach to describe the interaction of metals with electromagnetic fluctuations. ©Peter the Great St.Petersburg Polytechnic University.

The operation of microdevices used in modern technology is influenced by the Casimir force caused by electromagnetic fluctuations. This is the force of attraction acting between two surfaces in the vacuum. Such an interaction between electrically neutral bodies located at a distance of less than one micrometer was theoretically described in the middle of the 20th century by Academician Evgeny Lifshitz. In some cases, however, Lifshitz’s theory contradicted the experimental results. A mysterious paradox was discovered in the process of precise measurements of the Casimir forces in nanodevices.

“The predictions of the Lifshitz’s theory were in agreement with the measurement results only if the energy losses of conduction electrons in metals were not taken into account in calculations. These losses, however, do exist! It is common knowledge that electric current slightly heats the wire. In the literature, this situation is called the Casimir puzzle,” explains Galina Klimchitskaya, Professor of the Institute of Physics, Nanotechnology and Telecommunications, SPbPU.

The scientists of Polytechnic University were able to simultaneously take into account the energy losses of electrons in metals and to reach an agreement between the predictions of the Lifshitz theory and high-precision measurements of the Casimir force. A new approach, describing the interaction of metals with electromagnetic fluctuations, takes into account that there are two types of fluctuations: The real fluctuations (similar to the observed electromagnetic fields), and the so-called virtual fluctuations which cannot be directly observed (similar to the virtual particles that constitute the quantum vacuum).

“The proposed approach leads to approximately the same contribution of real fluctuations to the Casimir force, as the commonly used one, but significantly changes the contribution of virtual fluctuations. As a result, Lifshitz’s theory comes into agreement with experiment, while taking into account the energy losses of electrons in metals,” comments Vladimir Mostepanenko, Professor of the Institute of Physics, Nanotechnology and Telecommunications, SPbPU.

The published results refer to nonmagnetic metals. In the future, researchers plan to extend the results to materials with ferromagnetic properties. Thus, there will be an opportunity for reliable calculation and creation of more miniature nanodevices operated under the influence of the Casimir force.

References: Klimchitskaya, G.L., Mostepanenko, V.M. An alternative response to the off-shell quantum fluctuations: a step forward in resolution of the Casimir puzzle. Eur. Phys. J. C 80, 900 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1140/epjc/s10052-020-08465-y link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1140/epjc/s10052-020-08465-y

Provided by Peter the Great Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic University

Relieving The Cost Of COVID-19 By Parrondo’s Paradox (Maths)

The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has spread rapidly across the globe at an alarming pace, causing considerable anxiety and fear among the general public. In response to the growing number of new cases, many countries have imposed lockdown measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. However, nearly every individual, community, business, and economy has been adversely affected by lockdown measures – an impact to society that cannot be ignored.

The health and well-being of the population will be affected if the community is kept open, but the lockdown strategy also incurs economic and financial impacts. Each strategy on its own will increase the total ‘cost’ to society. Can both losing strategies be combined in a manner that leads to a winning outcome? That is the question that researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) set out to answer in a recent paper published in Advanced Science.

The team, led by Assistant Professor Kang Hao Cheong from SUTD, seeks to answer this question by modeling the population using Parrondo’s paradox with a view to relieve the cost of the epidemic by means of a switching strategy. The model takes into account the health and well-being of the population, as well as economic impacts and describes the interaction and flow between the different population compartments during the COVID-19 epidemic.

The researchers were inspired by a phenomenon called Parrondo’s paradox. The paradox states that it is possible to alternate between a pair of losing strategies and still end up winning. Their results represent one of the first studies to focus on the lockdown exit strategy. It is also one of the first to link Parrondo’s paradox to epidemiology.

From this study, the researchers show that keeping the community open results in a large number of infected individuals and a sharp increase in the number of deaths over time, so naturally the ‘cost’ increases. At the same time, a lockdown strategy reduces the possibility of infection, but has an adverse effect on the socio-economic cost.

“This means that each strategy cannot individually result in a decline to the ‘cost’ in the long-term during an epidemic. Such rising ‘cost’ allows us to classify them as losing strategies,” explained Tao Wen, a research student from SUTD and a co-author of the study.

“When one switches between the losing strategies in accordance with any of the proposed alternating strategies, the ‘cost’ per day will decline. This, in itself, is a winning strategy to control the loss caused by COVID-19,” he added.

This is a manifestation of the game theory Parrondo’s paradox: two losing strategies can be combined into an outcome that wins.

The researchers have introduced three different switching rules. They are the time-based switching, result-based switching, and random switching schemes. Each switching rule comes with its own strengths and is applicable across a wide range of real-world scenarios.

“Such novel strategies can be implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 or future epidemics, and have the potential to alleviate suffering, preserve and promote health and well-being among the population,” observed Assistant Professor Kang Hao Cheong, the principal investigator for this study from SUTD.

“COVID-19 is a complex of medical conditions and not a cause. The ultimate causative agent is not a virus in isolation, but a virus in complexity with particular social factors — the Four Horsemen: a) overpopulation, b)globalization, c) hyperconnectivity, and d) extreme centralization and increasing fragility of supply chains,” cautioned Assistant Professor Cheong.

References: Cheong, K.H., Wen, T. and Lai, J.W. (2020), Relieving Cost of Epidemic by Parrondo’s Paradox: A COVID‐19 Case Study. Adv. Sci.. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/advs.202002324 link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/advs.202002324

Provided by Singapore University Of Technology and Design

The Psychology of Doom Tourism and Last-Chance Travel (Psychology)

Can we overcome the paradox of dark tourism?

The statues of Easter Island are as iconic as they are mysterious. Erected over 600 years ago, they also provide a cautionary tale for the present day.

Easter Island has been proposed as a model for the entire worldSource: Photo by Steven Weeks via UnSplash.

The small, isolated island in the South Pacific, known by its earliest inhabitants as Rapa Nui, was at one point home to a thriving community of over 15,000. However, through a gradual process called “ecocide,” Easter Islanders overharvested the island’s resources, and ultimately, themselves. As Jared Diamond explains in his 2005 book, Collapse: “Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit‐bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. … No one would have noticed the feeling of the last small palm.”

Archaeological evidence suggests that only a few generations after this environmental upheaval, the population dwindled and the civilization collapsed.

More recent work suggests a wrinkle to this story — that European diseases may have also contributed to Easter Island’s demise. And in addition, the Rapu Nui inhabitants may not have died off immediately following the environment’s collapse, but instead lived an adjusted lifestyle for a few more generations, feeding off of small rodents that infested the island.

These points remain controversial but the larger lesson remains clear: Humans are capable of destroying the finite environmental resources that our lives depend on.

The Paradoxical Psychology of Doom Tourism

The earth is its own island. As Diamond predicted in Collapse, we’d soon find ourselves in an analogous situation with respect to the earth’s resources. As he describes, it’s the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” And here we are.

If we’re to heed the cautionary tale of Easter Island, it’s crucial to understand why it unfolded. The key to this may lie in better understanding the biases in our consumer behavior. And while we can’t go back and study this in the Rapa Nui, we do have a live simulation of this in today’s world: Doom Tourism.

Fragile sites like glaciers have seen increased interest from touristsSource: Photo by Jonatan Pie via UnSplash.

While climate change poses a longer-term existential threat, it currently threatens specific geographies at a much faster timescale. The coastlines of the Maldives become more constricted as sea levels rise, threatening to submerge them entirely within the century. The glaciers melt further away each year. Animal species of the Amazon become more threatened and sparse each passing year.

Here is where Doom Tourism comes in: When a certain site becomes sufficiently endangered it actually increases the demand to go and see it. And as more and more people go visit this site, it further damages its ecology, making it more endangered, and in turn, increasing demand. This sort of “last chance” travel generates a vicious cycle, leading to the acceleration of an already environmentally dire situation. This dynamic is often referred to as the doom tourism paradox.

Our susceptibility to it is grounded in our own psychology. The scarcity principle predicts that as a good becomes rarer, its demand increases. And this is exactly what has happened with at-risk tourist locations. Sadly, the activity of seeing these last chance travel destinations also accelerates their demise.

This is why the increasingly fleeting nature of these tourist experiences only stimulates their demand. You can go see the Eiffel Tower anytime, but there may only be a narrow window to see the Glaciers of Antarctica in all of their majestic glory.

Another kind of psychological bias is also working against us. With hordes of people heading to at-risk sites each year, the contribution of any given individual seems less and less. And therefore, refraining from doing so is perceived as being trivial. It’s all too easy to think, “If thousands of people go each year, what’s one more person?”

Recent research found that nearly three-quarters of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef were motivated to see it before it disappears. However, one’s concern for the reef, and the beliefs about how much damage their visit would cause was completely uncorrelated. Even environmentally-minded consumers seem blind to the negative impact their individual visits can bring.

Together, these forces conspire to create a classic “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in an accelerated race to the bottom.

The Philosophy of Doom Travel

Where do we go from here? The issue of Doom Tourism is brought to the fore in philosopher Emily Thomas’ book, The Meaning of Travel. Her writing raises important philosophical and ethical questions about its practice. In examining these questions, we’re offered suggestions on how we might overcome them.

For example, she examines the prospect that doom tourism can be given an educational bent, and that people may come to appreciate these sites and become ambassadors for their protection. Unfortunately, these interventions do not seem to work in practice. Dr. Thomas points to research suggesting that visiting Antarctica either did nothing to change the tourists’ environmental beliefs, or more troublingly, found that these visits decreased environmental friendliness.

Has the environment been given a lifeline by COVID-19? As stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions have proliferated throughout the globe, these trends have been stemmed. People are locked indoors more and more; Doom Travel has been overwhelmingly replaced by Doom Scrolling.

There’s a lot to say about the human, psychological toll that the pandemic has taken. But on the prospects of environmental stability, Dr. Thomas is cautiously optimistic. “If the ecological reports are to be believed, the pandemic has been positive for the environment. It has dramatically reduced flights, and these may be lasting changes. For example, we’ve learned that in business, a lot of things don’t require in-person meetings and can be done virtually”.

And as she points out in her book, progress in this domain may accelerate. Just as deterioration accelerates demand, rejuvenation may quell demand. The Great Barrier Reef goes back to being simply beautiful, not fleetingly beautiful. She writes, “Looking ahead, if our attempts at protecting places like Antarctica or the Great Barrier Reef fail, these sites will continue to deteriorate. Unfortunately, as their at-risk status increases, so too may visitor numbers. Conversely, if we succeed in protecting these places, they may cease to be at-risk. That could lead to visitor numbers dropping.” (p. 186)

The slope goes both ways, and human behavior will determine the direction.

Final Words on the Psychology of Doom Tourism

In Doom Tourism, we can see how our psychological biases, in tandem with market forces, can accelerate the destruction of our own environment.

COVID-19 has clearly dealt humanity a difficult hand. But if there’s a silver lining, it may have given the environment a much needed break from human travel in general, and Doom Tourism in particular. In the best-case scenario, it has illustrated the capacity for us to come together as a global society, collaborate, and take on collective sacrifice for the greater good.

But while these events provide a glimmer of hope, today’s environmental challenges are as pressing as ever. Easter Island provides us with a tragic, cautionary tale; Doom Tourism provides us with a modern, small-scale simulation. Whether we’ll heed these lessons remains to be seen.

References: (1) Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, Penguin Group USA. (2) Gates, B. (Aug, 2020) COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse, Gates Blog. (3) Hunt, T. and Lipo, C. (2010) The Statues That Walked: Unraveling The Mystery Of Easter Island, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. (4) Krulrich, R. (2013). What Happened On Easter Island — A New (Even Scarier) Scenario, NPR. (5) Piggott-McKellar, Annah E., and Karen E. McNamara (2016). ‘Last Change Tourism and the Great Barrier Reef’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 25: 397–415. (6) Thomas, E. (2018) The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. London, UK: Oxford Press

This post also appears in the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.

The Presenter’s Paradox: When Less is More (Psychology)

For many of us, the holiday season entails giving and receiving gifts. If you were on the receiving end, I invite you to reflect on how any gifts given to you made you feel in light of the findings of a recent line of research, soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research. And if you were on the giving end, I invite you to reflect on how any gifts given by you made the recipients feel.


In a series of studies, Kimberlee Weaver and her colleagues showed that recipients appreciated an expensive gift more than the same expensive gift when coupled with a less expensive one.

Makes little sense, right? More should be better, especially in a materialistic world.

But these researchers showed that gift-givers evaluate the worth and impact of what they give by adding up the worth and impact of individual gifts, whereas gift-receivers evaluate what they get as a whole, in effect averaging together the worth and impact of the individual gifts. On average, an expensive gift and a modest gift are less impressive than the expensive gift alone. They dubbed this phenomenon the presenter’s paradox, and it provides food for thought and not just about literal gifts.

Recipients and presenters apparently have different mindsets, and they may not understand the perspective of the other. Weaver and colleagues discussed the implications of their research with respect to law, negotiation, and public policy.


As a college teacher, the holiday season for me always coincides with the end of the fall semester, when I talk to students who did not do as well as they wished in classes I teach. They usually offer explanations, which I take seriously, but the more explanations a student offers, the more likely I am to hear them as mere excuses. One good explanation is enough and certainly better than a good one followed by two or three not-so-good ones!

On a more positive note, consider how we savor positive events of all sorts, not just holiday gifts. Suppose more than one good thing happens at a time? Hooray for us, but do we average them together or sum them? The research by Weaver and her colleagues suggests that we would be better served by summing up their impacts. That may be difficult to do, so a more practical suggestion – one that squares with research on savoring – is to experience one positive event at a time and not get distracted by others.

Reference: Weaver, K., Garcia, S. M., & Schwarz, N. (in press). The presenter’s paradox. Journal of Consumer Research.

The Dieter’s Paradox: When More Feels Like Less (Psychology / Food)

Why we pay attention to what we are eating, but not how much.

He thought, “this has a lot of calories, I really shouldn’t eat it.” It was a rich, creamy serving of ice-cream and he was already pretty full.

So he added some chopped nuts and strawberries. Somehow convinced that it now had fewer calories, and guilt free, he dug in.


Only a twisted mind would think you can decrease calories by adding more. So I guess I have a twisted mind, because “he” is me. I laugh about it, but my attitude has a lot to do with the epidemic of obesity in this country.

Is it only twisted minds that do this, though? Or do we all do it? Let’s look at some data.

Chernev (2011) asked people to estimate the number of calories in various meals, including a cheesesteak condition (yum).

There were two conditions:

• Unhealthy alone — for example a cheesesteak sandwich.
• Unhealthy plus healthy — for example the same cheesesteak sandwich plus a side of healthy vegetables.

Calorie ratings were higher for the unhealthy meal alone. Adding the healthy side made the meal seem to have fewer calories. In other words, x + 1 is less than x. Chernev (2011) called it the dieter’s paradox.

There was more. Weight conscious individuals were especially likely to show this effect. They thought the carrots and celery decreased calories by a lot, which is surprising if you assume they’d be most tuned in about estimating calories.

This study, and my ice-cream consumption, is an example of scope neglect. When we make judgments we aren’t very good at paying to attention to how big something is. Another example is that people will pay about the same amount to save 2,000 birds as to save 200,000 (Desvouges et al., 1993).

The dieter’s paradox is fundamental to the obesity epidemic in America. We pay attention to what we eat but not how much. When we look at the French, with their rich food, we wonder why they aren’t overweight. When we look at ourselves, with our huge servings that (sometimes) aren’t as calorie-dense, we wonder why we are overweight. That’s like wondering why ice cream alone has fewer calories than ice-cream with nuts and fruit on it.

References: (1) Chernev, A. (2011). The Dieter’s Paradox. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21, 178–183. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2010.08.002 (2) Desvouges, W.H., Johnson, F., Dunford, R., Hudson, S., Wilson, K., and Boyle, K. 1993. Measuring resource damages with contingent valuation: Tests of validity and reliability, in: Contingent Valuation: A Critical Assessment. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Why the Paradox of the End Does Not Make Life Meaningless (Psychology)

Consider the paradox of the end: we set ourselves a goal and make great efforts to achieve it. Doing so is often strenuous, but gives life direction, purpose and meaning. We see the goal as valuable, and this gives us a purpose and endows meaning on the means used to achieve this goal. But then, a short while after we achieve the goal, we frequently sense, paradoxically, that meaning in our life is diminished rather than enhanced. A sense of emptiness sets in. We are surprised to find that in achieving the end we lost the meaning we had while striving. Oddly, we are kind of sorry that we accomplished the end. To sense meaning again we quickly set to ourselves another end. But once achieved it, too, loses its meaning, and we pick yet another. It appears that the ends or goals are not really valuable; they are just excuses to strive for something.

However, if the goals are not really meaningful, then our efforts to achieve them are, in fact, also not meaningful. And this suggests that much of what we do is actually pointless. Since most of the value in our lives has to do with ends and efforts to achieve them, the paradox of the end makes life meaningless. When we treat our endeavors in life as meaningful we are just pretending to ourselves that our ends and the efforts to achieve them are of value. If we consider it sincerely, this argument for the meaninglessness of life claims, we have to accept the worthlessness of our ends, and therefore also the worthlessness of the means to attain them, and hence also the meaninglessness of life.

The paradox of the end has been often acknowledged (even if usually not by this name). For example, Oscar Wilde claimed “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. … The last is a real tragedy.” Likewise, The important pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer elaborated on the paradox and claimed that it is part of what makes life bad and meaningless.

But do we really have here a good argument against the meaning of life? I do not think so. Here are four reasons why.

First, as already argued by Oswald Hanfling, it is simply wrong that the meaning of all attained ends completely vanishes. Most people continue to see many achieved ends as highly valuable even years after attaining them. True, elation is often most intense in the first hours or days. However, most people recognize the value in having found love, won a prize, finished college, succeeded at work, or solved a personal problem even decades after accomplishing these ends. Thus, for most people, the empirical claim at the basis of the argument is incorrect.

Second, some achieved ends have no terminus. For example, being and remaining a loving and supportive husband, a good teacher, or a decent person are goals people attain every day and never cease accomplishing. The paradox does not apply at all to such unfinished ends. This also holds for regulative ends, that is, ends people know they will never achieve fully but towards which they aim and direct themselves. Such are, for example, attempts to develop a deeper understanding of music, enhance a capability, be more moral, or come nearer to God. Since such aims are never achieved, the paradox of the end does not apply to them.

Third, many meaningful aspects of life do not at all have to do with efforts to achieve ends; some meaningful aspects of life are not even intended, but just happen. For example, we may just find ourselves having a deep insight or realization, a strong aesthetic experience, a significant human encounter, or an intense religious involvement.

Fourth, this argument for the meaninglessness of life ignores people’s ability to change the degree to which they experience achieved ends as meaningless. Sensing the paradox of the end is often related to specific psychological tendencies that, when radicalized, become problematic, but with the right effort and counseling can often be moderated. For example, the paradox frequently coincides with Workaholism. Those inwardly compelled to work incessantly find it hard to just sit and enjoy their achievements, since their urge to continue working makes them restless. Likewise, overcompetitive people find it hard to feel satisfied for a long time after attaining a goal since they quickly sense an urge to embark on another competitive endeavor, and cannot but compare their achievement to some better one someone else has attained. Further, some people cannot just enjoy what they have achieved, feeling an urge to “go on and do something,” simply because they are nervous. But these and similar dynamics do not show that our achievements lack real value or that life is meaningless. They only show that some people’s temperamental habits diminish their ability to appreciate attained value. Practice and treatment can moderate many of these temperamental habits.

The paradox of the end does capture something about certain human experiences, but does not show or make life meaningless. In moderate form, it may actuality be beneficial, leading us to seek further valuable goals to pursue.

References: (1) Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan III, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Collins, 1966, 417. (2) Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, vols. 1–2 (New York: Dover, 1969), 1:312-314. (3) Oswald Hanfling, The Quest for Meaning (New York: Blackwell, 1988), 7.

This article is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.