On certainty

Lately, I’ve been sitting myself in bars, as I’ve written, and seeing what happens. Usually (I’ve probably done it five or six times in recent weeks), nothing happens. I have a drink or two, and leave.

But occasionally, something happens. A conversation gets struck up. A connection gets made. It hasn’t (yet) led to a sexual connection. For all the sex I’ve had in my life, I don’t believe I’ve ever “picked a woman up.” It’s just not my M.O. But I’ve had some good conversations, and met some interesting people.

I recently found myself considering acting out. I think about it not infrequently. Not, usually, in a way that carries a risk of actually doing it, but in a way that reflects the genuine desire I have for human, sexual connection. NOW.

What my standard form of acting out consisted of – and what I ponder now, when I ponder it – is a trip to a massage parlor, staffed by college or grad students, usually white, usually solidly middle class, where a massage is sure to end with what is delicately referred to as a “release,” or a “satisfying conclusion,” or, less often (but more famously) a “happy ending.”

Now here’s where it gets interesting: when I pondered acting out, I did a little thought experiment with myself. How, I thought, would a happy ending compare to a visit to a bar of the sort I describe above? My thoughts surprised and informed me.

First, if I compare the two best-case outcomes – picking up a woman in a bar (maybe just getting her phone number) vs. an explosive, satisfying orgasm in a massage parlor – the bar scenario wins hands-down. In fact, even if I don’t get her phone number, the bar scenario wins.

Second, if I compare the two most-likely outcomes – I have a drink alone in a bar and have a stimulating conversation, but not with an attractive woman vs. a perfectly fine, but nothing-special massage and orgasm – the orgasm wins. Not quite hands-down, but it wins. And it’s not close.

Because here’s the thing: the massage parlor offers certainty. The bar, risk, uncertainty.

There’s a concept in probability – expected value. It’s the value of all possible outcomes multiplied by each of their probability, added together. If you buy a lottery ticket, its expected value is pretty damned close to zero. Because even though the payoff is huge, your chance of winning is effectively zero. If I offer you a dollar if you flip heads, and nothing if you flip tails, your expected value is fifty cents – a fifty percent chance of winning a dollar (0.50 x $1.00) plus a fifty percent chance of winning nothing (0.50 x $0.00). Now, if I offer you the choice of fifty-one cents or the heads-you-win scenario, economic theory says you should choose the higher expected value. Not only that – it says you WILL choose the higher value. Economists tend to agree that this is true, with a couple of exceptions – lottery tickets, where we are blinded by the HUGE potential payout, and make the massively “irrational” decision to buy a ticket anyway, and scenarios which involve the potential not for gain, but for loss, in which, apparently, we behave “irrationally,” according to economists. I think economists are dumb here, but that economic theory is actually right: economists find it difficult to imagine the non-financial cost of losing money, and the non-financial benefit to imagining the possibility of winning the lottery, which explain our otherwise-inexplicable “irrational” behavior in those circumstances.

But what about me?

For me, there are two aspects to my experience that this thought experiment illuminated. First, I really value certainty highly. Even though the likely “payoff” of a massage – a combination of a perfectly-fine-but-not-earth-shattering orgasm from a perfectly-nice-and-attractive-but-not-known-and-liked-by-me woman, along with shame, and remorse – SEEMS pretty paltry… And the likely “payoff” in a bar – a stimulating conversation with someone other than a hot woman – is actually one I like… AND the best-case scenario is considerably less unlikely than, say, winning the lottery….

In spite of all that, I’d still prefer the massage parlor. Not to say I actually choose it. But it’s honestly more appealing. Before I layer on the realization that BOTH are “acting out,” as I understand it – acting rather than tolerating feelings. And, if all goes well, then I write. Or meditate. Or make a phone call. Or do some work. (This isn’t to say that going to a bar and sitting alone is always acting out – it’s to say that if it’s something I do to medicate loneliness, or distress, then it’s acting out.)

But back to the preference: because I subscribe to the economic theory, there must be other benefits to the massage parlor, and/or costs of the likely bar scenario, that I’m failing to consider.

There’s certainty, to be sure. I like it. And I don’t like uncertainty/risk. At. All. Second, there’s the possibility of “loss”: I could find myself rebuffed in a bar. Not just not to be in the presence of hot women, but affirmatively rejected by them. My equivalent of the “loss” economists say we over-value.

And we hate loss.

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