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TOM DORSEL: The Jelly Donut Theory
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TOM DORSEL: The Jelly Donut Theory

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Years ago as kids, Mark Koenig and I came up with what has come be known in philosophical circles as the “Jelly Donut Theory.” Little did we realize at the time how far reaching and robust its implications would be.

And only sometime later did we realize that the theory was somewhat similar to Pascal’s “Great Wager” about the existence of God. Pretty heady stuff for a couple of kids.

The theory in donut form

Mark and Tom are presented with two donuts, one a jelly-filled donut and the other a chocolate-covered donut. They each are going to get one, and only one, but which one?

Mark gentlemanly says to Tom, “Which one do you want?” This puts Tom in a dilemma: He wants to be gracious and let Mark have the one that Mark wants, but he does not know which one Mark wants. And Mark, equally gracious, won’t tell him his preference.

So, Tom really wants the jelly donut, but hates to take it because Mark might want that one, too. But if Tom is gracious in his own mind and takes the chocolate donut, that could be the one Mark actually wants. So, what is Tom to do?

Donut dilemma resolution

Tom rationalizes that the goal of this exercise is to create as much mutual happiness as possible. Since Mark’s preference is unknown to Tom, the percentage thing for Tom to do is to take the donut he wants — the jelly donut — because then at least half of the two people involved is going to be happy. Plus, there is the hoped-for possibility that Mark actually wants the chocolate donut and that both Tom and Mark will end up happy.

The key point here is that the pair is assured of half happiness, if Tom takes the one he wants, and total happiness, if Mark ends up getting the one he wants.

The lower percentage approach

If Tom were to take the one he doesn’t want — the chocolate donut — thinking that will make Mark happy, what is actually being assured is that the best the pair can do now is to have one person happy with his choice. That is because Tom made sure that he would be unhappy by taking the donut he did not want. And if it so happens that Mark does not want the jelly donut after all, then neither will have the donut they want and nobody will be happy.

Pascal’s “Great Wager”

Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) “Great Wager” involves the choice to live a good life or a bad life against the backdrop of not knowing whether God exists or not. In simplified form, four possible combinations present themselves:

1. God exists, and you have lived a good life.

2. God exists, and you have lived a bad life.

3. God does not exist, and you have lived a good life.

4. God does not exist, and you have lived a bad life.

Now, thinking back to the Jelly Donut theory for a moment, not knowing which donut Mark wanted, Tom believed the percentage choice was to take the one he really wanted. Similarly, Pascal believed that under the conditions of not knowing whether God exists, the best choice was to live a good life, because Pascal assumed that living a good life is inherently happier than a bad life.

That is, by choosing a good life, whether God turns out to exist or not, you will at least be half happy by having enjoyed a good life. And if God does turn out to exist, then you will be totally happy by also being rewarded in the next life.

On the other hand, if you choose to live a bad life, you might, so to speak, be a half winner by getting away with it, if God turns out not to exist. But, lo and behold, if God does turn out to exist, you will be a two-time loser, unhappy from being bad in this life and punished further in the next.

Other applications of these theories

These theories have been applied to matters as lofty as the existence of angels, all the way down to picking a table at a restaurant.

As for angels, The Great Wager strategy would suggest that you have nothing to lose from believing in angels, particularly if it means your guardian angel might yank you out from in front of an oncoming car that is about to knock you into the next life.

As for two people going into a restaurant and your companion insisting that you pick whatever table you like, the Jelly Donut theory dictates that you pick whichever table you want. At least you will be happy with the choice, and hopefully your companion will like it, too.

Moral of the story

Don’t encourage your children or grandchildren to become psychologists. Indeed, be particularly vigilant if you notice analytical tendencies early in life. This happened with Mark and Tom and the Jelly Donut Theory. And, as might have been predicted, both boys would go on to be psychology majors in college.

Dr. Tom Dorsel is professor emeritus of psychology at FMU and now operates “Sport Psychology of Hilton Head,” while living on the island. His best-selling book is “GOLF: The Mental Game,” and he can be reached on Facebook or at Dorsel.com.

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