Henry Secures 2nd Place in Global Essay Competition

The Judges from the Universities of Oxford, Harvard and Princeton awarded Felsted’s Henry B second place for his essay, out of over 2,700 entrants worldwide! Find out from Henry what he wrote about...

Having spent a great deal of time researching the psychology behind human decision-making for my EPQ last year, I was pleased to find that one of the questions for this year’s John Locke Institute Essay Competition was concerned with the mind’s computational architecture and what we can do to override our natural tendencies. Specifically, the question stated that, “Due to the process of natural selection, we have evolved to believe what is useful, rather than what is actually true”. It then asked, “What can we do to resist this tendency and would make us happier as a species?”

I addressed this by looking at the cognitive biases that make us take decisions that promote the survival of the species, but which may be sub-optimal in terms of maximising our own, individual, wellbeing. For example, the decisions we take to increase our socio-economic status, (pursuing income and wealth at the expense of social activities), may help societies to flourish, but may not actually make us happier. Similarly, the belief that having children is beneficial, is reinforced by the cultural norms and cognitive biases that champion reproductive fitness, but evidence gathered from a range of wealthy countries, suggests that the experience of parenting may actually reduce happiness levels.

A conundrum exists, however, that decisions that are good for the individual, may not be the best for the group as a whole: if everyone decides to prioritise leisure over work and not to have children, there are obvious consequences for the future of society. Thus, although it is possible for us to resist our natural desires to pursue wealth and procreate, (by engaging in conscious analytical thought processes to override our automatic impulses), it may not, necessarily, increase human flourishing to do so.

The Judges from the Universities of Oxford, Harvard and Princeton apparently agreed with me, as I was awarded second place, out of over 2,700 entrants worldwide.