The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Positive Psychology’ Category

What Is Welfare? – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 4, 2009

Door to HappinessJohn Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco, and Jonathan Masur posted another interesting paper, “Welfare as Happiness,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

In the fields of law, economics, and philosophy, the leading conception of human welfare is preference-satisfaction — getting what one wants. An important rival is an objective list approach to ethics — possessing an enumerated set of capabilities. This Article argues against both major views and in favor of a third, defining welfare as subjective well-being — feeling good. We reject the leading approach on the ground that preferences are often mistaken or else involve goals independent of the individual’s own welfare. When sophisticated preference-satisfaction theories launder out such preferences, those accounts reduce to our happiness-based approach. We reject objective list theories on the ground that they impose objective criteria, whereas an individual’s well-being is a purely subjective concept. How good a person’s life is for her cannot be judged by how well she satisfies someone else’s standards of virtue or flourishing. By contrast with these theories, our hedonic approach captures the ordinary understanding of what it means for someone to have well-being, and it stands up better to analytical challenges than do its rivals. As a result, we advocate that administrative agencies replace cost-benefit analysis (the tool of the preference-based approach) with well-being analysis. Groundbreaking new research in hedonic psychology makes this possible, and we discuss how it can be accomplished.

* * *

You can download the paper for free here.  For more Situationist posts about some of those authors’ previous work, see  “Happiness and Punishment – Abstract,” and “The Situation of Civil Settlements – Abstract.”  To read other releated Situationist posts, see “Something to Smile About,” Happiness Rankings by Country,” “Miscalculating Welfare – Abstract,” and “Situating Emotion.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Getting a Grip on Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 25, 2009

Casion ChipsLast month, Adam Corner wrote a worthwhile editorial, “Time to Gamble on a Post-Carbon World,” for the Guardian. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

That we engage in tactics of diversion, avoidance, and denial has been documented extensively on these pages. But as if our natural tendency to stick our heads in the sand wasn’t bad enough, the global recession further undermines our confidence. And when we lack self-confidence, facing up to the immense challenge that climate change represents is made all the more difficult.

One of the trickiest aspects of getting to grips with climate change is acknowledging that some of our beliefs about the world – say, for example, that private car ownership should be encouraged because it enhances personal freedom – might have to be reconsidered.

[Situationist Contributor] Geoffrey Cohen . . . has demonstrated that when people feel threatened or lack confidence they are less receptive to evidence that challenges their existing beliefs. In a study involving opinions about capital punishment, people reacted defensively when their beliefs were challenged, and new evidence failed to alter their existing opinions. But when the participants in the study were made to feel good about themselves – when their self-confidence was enhanced – they were more willing to take on board new evidence and reconsider their beliefs.

Climate change challenges us all to think differently and question our assumptions. The last thing we need is financial uncertainty to unsteady our nerves. But the doctrine of continual economic growth requires great risks to be taken in the hope that great gains will be achieved. Can we get to grips with climate change within an economic system that demands we live life on the edge?

Herman Daly, a former economist at the World Bank, has proposed a radically different system – a steady state economy. Rejecting the assumption that a market-based economy must continually grow, a steady state economy starts from the position that any economy will be constrained by the finite limits of the earth’s ecosystems. Noting that the earth is in a naturally steady state (that is, its natural systems are not expanding) Daly suggests that a steady state economy should allow qualitative development but not quantitative growth. According to Daly: “Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff.”

While the quality of life of millions of people in the developing world is fundamentally contingent on increasing their financial wealth, the developed nations have stormed past the point at which there is any correlation between additional wealth and happiness. Certainly, this masks gross inequalities in per capita income but as a nation we have more money than we need. Should we keep on getting richer? Or should development take priority over growth?

Daly proposes that a steady state economy means a global redistribution of wealth and a fundamental revaluation of what constitutes ‘value.’ But as well as its incredible potential for social transformation, a steady state economy removes the instability of a system of perpetual growth. It both requires and ensures that we live within our psychological and ecological means.

* * *

To read tbe entire article, click op-ed. For some related Situationist posts, see “Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part V,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Morality, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Something to Smile About

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 23, 2009

Smiley Face Suckers

Yes, I’m easily excitable, but I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see mainstream newspapers publishing articles on hedonic research!  Lame (terribly clever) puns aside, there is a promising trend afoot.

In the last couple weeks, the New York Times and the Boston Globe have published articles exploring the implications of research on human happiness.

In the NYT, Situationist friend Dan Gilbert sought to shed light on “new survey results from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showing that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise.”

According to Gilbert, the explanation has to do with the discomfort of uncertainty.

* * *

Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks.  Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial.  Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come.  The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid—they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster—than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.  Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

But why?

A colostomy reroutes the colon so that waste products leave the body through a hole in the abdomen, and it isn’t anyone’s idea of a picnic. A University of Michigan-led research team studied patients whose colostomies were permanent and patients who had a chance of someday having their colostomies reversed. Six months after their operations, patients who knew they would be permanently disabled were happier than those who thought they might someday be returned to normal.

Similarly, researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease.  Those who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing the condition were happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it?  Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it.  We change our behavior, we change our attitudes.  We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug.  But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know.  An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.

For the Globe, Drake Bennett wrote about the potential policy implications of hedonic research.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

In recent years, cognitive scientists have turned in increasing numbers to the study of human happiness, and one of their central findings is that we are not very good at predicting how happy or unhappy something will make us. Given time, survivors of tragedies and traumas report themselves nearly as happy as they were before, and people who win the lottery or achieve lifelong dreams don’t see any long-term increase in happiness. By contrast, annoyances like noise or chronic pain bring down our happiness more than you’d think, and having friends or an extra hour of sleep every night can raise it dramatically.

These findings have fed the growth of a burgeoning “positive psychology” movement focused on helping people enrich their own lives. But now some scholars are starting to ask a bigger question: shouldn’t this new understanding affect policy, too? A huge range of social systems, from tort law to urban planning to medical care, are built on assumptions about what makes people happy. Now, for the first time, researchers are claiming to be actually measuring happiness, to actually know what causes it. In a society whose Smiley Facefounding document asserts a basic right to the pursuit of happiness, that new knowledge could have far-reaching implications.

What we’re learning, these thinkers argue, should make us reconsider some of the basic rules by which government regulates behavior: how we litigate lawsuits and write contracts; how we zone neighborhoods; which medical research we fund, and how we prioritize healthcare. The findings of happiness researchers offer a new and potentially powerful set of tools to compare the impacts of various laws: how does it change everybody’s happiness if the minimum wage is raised, if the speed limit is lowered, if divorce laws are loosened?

Some skeptics think it’s premature to let happiness research dictate policy: much of the data is still provisional, and some findings seem to contradict each other. And, more fundamentally, some argue that no amount of data could justify the sort of paternalism that would be required for the government to force people into some happiness-maximizing choices. It’s part of a broader debate that has preoccupied thinkers since the dawn of philosophy but been rekindled by the new research: how do we define happiness, anyway, and how much should we value it?

[S]ome psychologists have begun to argue that you can, in fact, reliably measure happiness: all you need to do is ask people. Because we so badly mispredict and misremember how happy something made us, however, the trick is to ask people to rate their current happiness, and then track the changes over time. Many recent studies have subjects keep happiness diaries; others give them beepers and have them rate their happiness whenever beeped.

Perhaps the best known study in the literature was published in 1978 by the psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. They compared the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners, paralyzed accident victims (both paraplegics and quadriplegics), and people who were neither. What they found was that lottery winners didn’t report themselves appreciably happier than the control group, and while the paralyzed did report themselves less happy than the controls, the difference was not as dramatic as the researchers had expected. More recent and rigorous studies have yielded results broadly similar: getting married or getting a raise or a new house all give a boost to our happiness, but eventually we drop to levels near where we were before. By contrast, happiness dips and then rebounds after people lose a limb, their sight or even – though the data is more conflicting here – a loved one.

For Daniel Gilbert . . . the implications for policymaking are straightforward. Lawmakers, judges, doctors and managers alike should take the growing happiness literature into account as they decide what behavior they want to encourage or discourage. “Before we get people to do X, we ought to know that X is actually a source of happiness for them,” he says.

The field that has taken this most to heart so far is the law. A few scholars have begun arguing, for example, that the damages we award in lawsuits need to be rethought in light of work like Gilbert’s. Last year Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who is now the Obama administration’s nominee for “regulatory czar,” published a law review article in which he argued that our inability to predict how well people adapt to traumas leads to excessively large awards in personal injury lawsuits. Jurors and judges overcompensate plaintiffs for their suffering, he argued, because they are unable to believe that a disabled life can be a happy one. At the same time, Sunstein pointed to evidence that people are actually better at adapting to physical disabilities than to mental illness or chronic pain – conditions that, because they are not visible, don’t tend to elicit the same sort of reaction from juries. Because of that, he argued, our misunderstanding of happiness shortchanges those plaintiffs.

* * *

Other legal scholars are concerned not with the misallocation of award money, but with how the legal process itself may hurt people who have already suffered a trauma by impeding their natural ability to adapt. Samuel Bagenstos and Margo Schlanger, law professors at Washington University in St. Louis, co-wrote a law review article in 2007 suggesting that the emphasis on lost enjoyment of life in jury awards actually makes it harder for the plaintiff to recover. Better, they argue, to focus remedies not on the lost happiness, which in many cases will take care of itself, but on specific lost capabilities, and on mitigating their effects through rehabilitation. And to the extent that disabilities do cause unhappiness, it’s often from social factors like isolation and discrimination – so paying people off just for their disability may be counterproductive, since it can leave the real causes of unhappiness unaddressed.

In the legal world, these ideas have triggered some pushback. Among the more specific critiques was one offered by Peter Huang, a law professor at Temple, and Rick Swedloff, a visiting associate professor at Rutgers. In a law review article published this spring, they take on what they call the “legal hedonists,” cautioning that happiness research was still too uncertain to justify large-scale legal changes. What’s more, they argue, juries and judges often display a subtler intuitive understanding of hedonic adaptation than Sunstein allows.

* * *

To read Bennett’s worthwhile piece in its entirety, click here.   For related Situationist posts, click here.

Thanks to Julian Darwell for his assistance with this post.

Posted in Emotions, Law, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Smile If You Love Your Future Relationships

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 25, 2009

smileFrom Live Science, here’s an interesting summary by Clara Moskowitz of recent research suggesting that “Smiles Predict Marriage Success.”  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

If you want to know whether your marriage will survive, look at your spouse’s yearbook photos.

Psychologists have found that how much people smile in old photographs can predict their later success in marriage.

In one test, the researchers looked at people’s college yearbook photos, and rated their smile intensity from 1 to 10. None of the people who fell within the top 10 percent of smile strength had divorced, while within the bottom 10 percent of smilers, almost one in four had had a marriage that ended, the researchers say. (Scoring was based on the stretch in two muscles: one that pulls up on the mouth, and one that creates wrinkles around the eyes.)

In a second trial, the research team asked people over age 65 to provide photos from their childhood (the average age in the pictures was 10 years old). The researchers scored each person’s smile, and found that only 11 percent of the biggest smilers had been divorced, while 31 percent of the frowners had experienced a broken marriage.

Overall, the results indicate that people who frown in photos are five times more likely to get a divorce than people who smile.

While the connection is striking, the researchers stress that they can’t conclude anything about the cause of the correlation.

“Maybe smiling represents a positive disposition towards life,” said study leader Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana. “Or maybe smiling people attract other happier people, and the combination may lead to a greater likelihood of a long-lasting marriage. We don’t really know for sure what’s causing it.”

Hertenstein said he has considered other explanations, such as the possibility that people who smile more often tend to attract more friends, and a larger support network makes it easier to keep a marriage healthy. Or it could be that people who smile when a photographer tells them to are more likely to have obedient personalities, which could make marriage easier.

The results of the study fit into a larger pattern of research that has found many personality characteristics can be determined from very thin slices of behavior. Basically, we often reveal ourselves in the most subtle, simple ways.

* * *

The study is detailed in the April 5 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion.

* * *

To read the entire summary, click here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “Interpreting Facial Expressions,” “Seeing Faces,” “The Situation of Flirting,” “Can You Turn the World on With Your Smile?,” and ” A Look Into the Way Culture Affects Facial Expression.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Group Effort

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 10, 2009

cleaning-upFrom The Globe and Mail, here are excerpts from an article, by Wallace Immen, describing a fascinating research regarding the potential impact of an individuals effort on team effort.

* * *

Feel like a fool for pulling your weight when everyone else you’re working with is slacking off?

Maybe you should feel like an inspiration instead: If you consistently act for the good of the team, others will be moved to follow your lead, a new study finds. That’s a bit of a surprise, says Mark Weber, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business.

“The prevailing wisdom in many scholarly circles has been that consistent co-operators are suckers, and that others will take advantage of them by getting a free ride on their efforts,” he says.

“But our study found that people who start out acting in their own self-interests, but then see others consistently acting for the good of the group, tend to follow suit and become more co-operative themselves. And, as a result, everyone in the group can come out ahead,” he says.

Even if just one person in a group is consistently co-operative, he or she can shift the behaviour of the whole group to become the same way, found the study Prof. Weber did in conjunction with J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Their conclusions are drawn from a series of experiments with students who were given an equal amount of money, and then had to decide whether to keep it for themselves or put it into a group pot.

An experimenter matched whatever was put into the pot, with the total to be divided among all participants. Those who acted selfishly by keeping their original stake rather than putting it into the pot would wind up with more than those who shared. The twist: Each time, one participant was told in advance to always be co-operative and put his or her money into the pool.

In the first round of the experiments, nearly all other participants selfishly kept their money. But as rounds progressed, more started to follow the lead of the person who consistently shared.

Soon, everyone was putting their money into the pool. And they all came out with slightly more money than they’d started with, so the whole group wound up ahead through co-operative behaviour.

Just as important, the result shows that those who consistently co-operate clearly influence others to do the same, Prof. Weber says.

* * *

The entire article is here.  To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Maverickiness Paradox” and “Team-Interested Decision Making.”

Posted in Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Situationism in the News

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 16, 2009

situationism-in-the-news

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of the Situationist news items of February 2009. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

* * *

From Boston Globe: “Aging has its benefits

“In the 1973 film “The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand sings a haunting ballad about memories and aging. “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,” the song goes.  Now, research suggests that the song was essentially right, and illustrates just how the brain manages to dismiss negative memories but retain the positive ones as we get older.” Read more . . .

From Calgary Herald: ‘Guilt by association’ unlikely: Study

“There’s good news for anyone still squirming over a friend’s bad dancing, excessive drinking or awkward conversation: There’s no egg on your face.  A new Canadian study that claims to be the first to examine “guilt by association” reveals that while people writhe with embarrassment when a friend commits a social faux-pas, onlookers don’t hold their associate’s behaviour against them.” Read more . . .

From CNN Health: Study: Experiences make us happier than possessions

“Even in tough economic times, you may find yourself with a bit of cash to spare. You’ve been working hard, and you want to treat yourself. Should you spend it on an experience, such as a baseball game or concert, or a material object?  Psychological research suggests that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions.” Read more . . .

From Huffington Post: Obama and the Science of Altruism

“ Investigations in social psychology and neuroscience may support Obama’s ideas about people’s willingness to pitch in. By stirring the emotions of new voters while at the same time asking them for increased service to their country, he has tapped into a set of complementary ideas about human psychology: that empathy is a deeply ingrained human tendency, and that it leads naturally to a desire to help those we feel empathy for.” Read more . . .

From Live Science: “Study Reveals Why First Impressions Count

“Getting off on the wrong foot can doom a relationship before it begins, as we all know.  Now scientists have studied one reason why this is true. When a person makes a bad first impression, the negative feelings are harder to overcome than a betrayal that occurs after ties are established.” Read more . . .

From New York Times: “An Economist’s Mea Culpa

“How could the economics profession have slept so soundly right into the middle of the economic mayhem all around us? Robert J. Shiller of Yale University, one of the sage prophets, addressed that question in an earlier commentary in this paper. Professor Shiller finds an explanation in groupthink, a term popularized by the social psychologist Irving L. Janis. In his book “Groupthink” (1972), the latter had theorized that most people, even professionals whose careers ostensibly thrive on originality, hesitate to deviate too much from the conventional wisdom, lest they be marginalized or even ostracized..” Read more . . .

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Life, Positive Psychology | Leave a Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – November 2008

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2009

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during November 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

* * *

From BPS Research Digest blog: “Dazzled by digits: how we’re wooed by product specifications

“From megapixels and gigabytes to calorie counts and sun protection factors, there’s barely a product out there that isn’t proudly boasting its enviable specs to would-be purchasers. A new study suggests these figures exert a powerful, irrational effect on consumers’ decision-making, even overriding the influence of a person’s direct experience with a product.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest blog: “Rare, profound positive events won’t make you happy, but lots of little ones

“Rather like a pond that soon returns to calm no matter the size of the stone you throw in it, psychological research has shown that people’s sense of happiness is stubbornly immovable, regardless of how good or bad the experiences one endures. . . . According to Daniel Mochon and colleagues, however, this is not the full story. Mochon’s team have tested the idea that whereas rare, massive events have no lasting effect on happiness, the cumulative effect of lots of little boosts may well have the power to influence happiness over the longer-term.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest blog: We’re better at spotting fake smiles when we’re feeling rejected

“Bernstein’s team provoked feelings of rejection in students by asking them to write about a time they felt rejected or excluded. These students were subsequently better at distinguishing fake from real smiles as depicted in four-second video clips, than were students who’d either been asked to write about a time they felt included, or to write about the previous morning.” Read more . . .

From Everyday Sociology Blog: “Ideology

“You probably hear the word ideology used a lot, whether it is used in political or economic discussions (or in sociology classes). But what does it really mean? Put plainly, ideology is a way of seeing the world. Ideologies are like lenses through which we view just about everything. . . .” Read more . . .

* * *

For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Ideology, Marketing, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Kahneman on the Situation of Well-Being

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2009

In Part II of his 2007 Hitchcock Lectures (titled “Explorations of the Mind – Well-Being: Living and Thinking About It“) , Daniel Kahneman explores meaning and causes of well-being:

* * *

To view Part I of the lecture series, see Dan Kahneman on the Situation of Intuition.” For a collection of videos of Dan Kahneman, click here.  For a sample of other Situationist posts related to Kahneman’s work, see Dan Kahneman’s Situation,” “The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part II.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Resolutions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 7, 2009

The Party's OverJust one week out into 2009, and many of us are already tripping up on our resolutions.   It’s another case of our disposition being weaker than our situation.  Here are a couple of excerpts that shed some light on the interior situation of our resolve.

* * *

From Sam Sommers’ excellent post “A Once-a-Year Reality Check“:

. . . . I was surprised to hear that one of my aforementioned vital signs was not in the “normal” range one would expect.

* * *

You’d be amazed at the mental gymnastics I went through in order to convince myself that this was some sort of mistake. The room where the screening took place was hot and crowded. They were disorganized enough that they could have transposed digits or confused samples. It was the midterm crunch and I, like everyone else there, was even more stressed than usual. The election was coming up and I had stayed up too late the night before reading polls on line. Seriously. I remember telling myself that.

* * *

We do this type of thing all the time. As many a psychologist has observed and demonstrated empirically, our processes of self-perception are very often less focused on accuracy than on self-enhancement and self-protection.

You could write a blog entry every day for a month on the different mental and behavioral strategies we employ in the effort to continue feeling good about ourselves in the wake of threatening feedback or personal failure: comparing ourselves to people less fortunate than we are; blaming external factors for our own underperformance; putting ourselves in no-lose situations; thinking that we’re better than average at most of the mundane tasks we engage in.

This toolbox of self-deception has a lot to offer. It allows us to remain resilient in the face of our own disappointments. It permits us to bounce back quickly from failure. It gives us the gall to say things like, I know I’m unpopular now, but history will judge me to have been a great leader. And so on.

Of course, as it is with red wine, chocolate, and Jim Carrey movies, these self-serving tendencies have positive effects in moderation, but too much becomes hard to stomach. Keep failing to assume responsibility for outcomes in our lives, and we never seize the opportunity for improvement. Refuse to admit to the reality of our surroundings, and we become unsufferable jerks no one wants to be around.

* * *

From Benedict Carey‘s interesting New York Times article, “Some Protect the Ego by Working on Their Excuses Early.”

This is one reason that genuine excuse artisans — and there are millions of them — don’t wait until after choking to practice their craft. They hobble themselves, in earnest, before pursuing a goal or delivering a performance. Their excuses come preattached: I never went to class. I was hung over at the interview. I had no idea what the college application required.

“This is real self-sabotage, like drinking heavily before a test, skipping practice or using really poor equipment,” said Edward R. Hirt, a psychologist at Indiana University. “Some people do this a lot, and often it’s not clear whether they’re entirely conscious of doing it — or of its costs.”

Psychologists have studied this sort of behavior since at least 1978, when Steven Berglas and Edward E. Jones used the phrase “self-handicapping” to describe students in a study who chose to take a drug that they were told would inhibit their performance on an exam (the drug was actually inert).

The urge goes well beyond a mere lowering of expectations, and it has more to do with protecting self-image than with psychological conflicts rooted in early development, in the Freudian sense. Recent research has helped clarify not just who is prone to self-handicapping but also its consequences — and its possible benefits.

In the original conception, Dr. Berglas and Dr. Jones identified self-handicapping in students who were told they had aced a test made up of impossible-to-answer questions. They had “succeeded” without knowing how or why. “These are the people who are told they are brilliant, without knowing how that inference is derived,” said Dr. Berglas, now an executive coach in the Los Angeles area. He understood the impulse, he said; he himself first experimented with drugs in high school just before taking the SAT, on which he was expected to get a perfect score — a reckless stunt that provided the seed for the theory.

The urge to shoot one’s own foot seems to be stronger in men than in women. In surveys, Dr. Hirt and others have measured the tendency by asking people to rate how well a series of 25 statements describes their own behavior — for example, “I try not to get too intensely involved in competitive activities so it won’t hurt too much if I lose or do poorly.” Men tend to score higher on these measures and, in lab studies, to handicap themselves more severely.

Yet given the opportunity, and a good reason, most people will claim some handicap. In a paper published last summer, Sean McCrea, a psychologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany, described experiments in which he manipulated participants’ scores on a variety of intelligence tests. In some, the subjects could choose to prepare before taking the test or could join the “no practice” group.

Sure enough, Dr. McCrea found that those told they got bad scores blamed a lack of practice, if they could, and that citing this handicap cushioned the blow to their self-confidence.

But the handicap also had another effect. In another experiment, participants who had a good excuse for their poor scores — distracting noises, pumped through headphones they wore during the test — were less motivated to prepare for a subsequent test than those who had no excuse. “The handicap allowed them to say, ‘All things considered, I actually did pretty well,’ ” Dr. McCrea said in a phone interview. “And there’s no drive to get better.”

The burn of embarrassment is, in some sense, the pilot light of motivation.

As a short-term strategy, self-handicapping is often no more than an exercise in self-delusion. Studies of college students have found that habitual handicappers — who skip a lot of classes; who miss deadlines; who don’t buy the textbook — tend to rate themselves in the top 10 percent of the class, though their grades slouch between C and D.

Those who succeed despite their flirtations with disorder typically grow increasingly fond of the handicap itself, whether drink or drugs or defying rules. “With success, expectations go up, and the behavior gets more extreme,” said Dr. Berglas, author of “Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout”. . . .

But the tactic doesn’t fool many people. In a recent study, James C. McElroy of Iowa State University and J. Michael Crant of Notre Dame had 246 adults evaluate the behavior of characters in several workplace anecdotes. The participants’ impressions of a character began to sour after the second time the person cited a handicap.

“What happens here is that if you do it often, observers attribute your performance to you, but begin to view it as part of your disposition, i.e., you’re a whiner,” Dr. McElroy wrote in an e-mail message. “But you can avoid this happening if someone else does the handicapping for you, and surprisingly enough, even if they do it often.”

That, too, is well known among the very best of excuse makers: for best results, recruit an apologist.

Posted in Choice Myth, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election – Part 4

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 16, 2008

We’re interested in how you’re feeling after the U.S. Presidential election.  Please answer the following poll questions.  (We will post summary results of this and the three previous polls in January.)

Posted in Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology | 1 Comment »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election – Part 3

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 14, 2008

We’re interested in how you’re feeling after the U.S. Presidential election.  Please answer the following poll questions.

[THE POLL QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN REMOVED.  TO TAKE THE CURRENT VERSION OF THE QUESTIONS, CLICK HERE.]

Posted in Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology | 3 Comments »

Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 12, 2008

From Ted Talks: Martin Seligman talks about psychology — as a field of study and as it works one-on-one with each patient and each practitioner. As it moves beyond a focus on disease, what can modern psychology help us to become?

Martin Seligman founded the field of positive psychology in 2000, and has devoted his career since then to furthering the study of positive emotion, positive character traits, and positive institutions. It’s a fascinating field of study that had few empirical, scientific measures — traditional clinical psychology focusing more on the repair of unhappy states than the propagation and nurturing of happy ones. In his pioneering work, Seligman directs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, developing clinical tools and training the next generation of positive psychologists.

* * *

For other Situationist posts discussing research on positive psychology, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election – Part 2

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 5, 2008

We’re interested in how you’re feeling after the U.S. Presidential election.  Please answer the following poll questions.

[THE POLL QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN REMOVED.  TO TAKE THE CURRENT VERSION OF THE QUESTIONS, CLICK HERE.]

Posted in Emotions, Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Introspection, Retrospection, & the 2008 Election

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 3, 2008

Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert have shown that, although we expect the outcomes of presidential elections to significantly influence how happy we feel, the evidence indicates otherwise.  As with most things, our affective forecasting is not to be trusted.  Gilbert summarizes one study this way:

Democrats predicted they’d be devastated if Bush won the last presidential election, they were not nearly as devastated as they predicted . . . , and yet several months later they remembered being just as devastated as they had expected to be. It turns out that this is a very common pattern of memory errors.

Our miswanting and misremembering reinforce our continued inability to forecast our own happiness.

But what do you think?  Is this election different?  Will your happiness level be seriously influenced by the outcome of this election?  Answer the questions below.

[THE POLL QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN REMOVED.  TO TAKE THE CURRENT VERSION OF THE QUESTIONS, CLICK HERE.]

If you think that this election will significantly influence your happiness level, please feel free to leave a comment explaining why.

Posted in Emotions, Illusions, Politics, Poll, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Happiness and Punishment – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2008

John Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco, and Jonathan Masur, have recently posted their interesting new paper, “Happiness and Punishment” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

This article continues our project to apply groundbreaking new literature on the behavioral psychology of human happiness to some of the most deeply analyzed questions in law. Here we explain that the new psychological understandings of happiness interact in startling ways with the leading theories of criminal punishment. Punishment theorists, both retributivist and utilitarian, have failed to account for human beings’ ability to adapt to changed circumstances, including fines and (surprisingly) imprisonment. At the same time, these theorists have largely ignored the severe hedonic losses brought about by the post-prison social and economic deprivations (unemployment, divorce, and disease) caused by even short periods of incarceration. These twin phenomena significantly disrupt efforts to attain proportionality between crime and punishment and to achieve effective marginal deterrence. Hedonic psychology thus threatens to upend conventional conceptions of punishment and requires retributivists and utilitarians to find novel methods of calibrating traditional punitive sanctions if they are to maintain the foundations upon which punishment theory rests.

* * *

For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Civil Settlements - Abstract,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and Why We Punish.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Law, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Patricia Devine on Resisting Implicit Associations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 4, 2008

Nicole Fritz has a nice article summarizing research of Patricia Devine, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor. Here’s a sample.

* * *

It is a question on many Americans’ minds: Is the United States ready for a black president, or will deep-rooted and even unconscious prejudices show at the polls?

For Patricia Devine, . . . who researches prejudice, the answer isn’t black and white.

“Your conscious mind might tell you to vote for [Obama], but in the privacy of the election booth your unconscious biases may vote differently,” Devine says.

However, Devine holds out when she reflects on the outcome of the election. “It remains to be seen but, cautiously, I think America is ready.”

It is Devine’s rare and constant optimism in people that during the past two decades has changed the field of prejudice psychology.

“Extensive amounts of research have demonstrated the prevalence of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, but where others saw mere statistics, Trish saw an opportunity. The premise upon which much of her research is based is that people desire to be good,” says Laura Sheets, one of Devine’s students and lab assistants. “In her personality, lectures and research, Trish consistently conveys this message of optimism.”

In the 1980s, when equal rights were beginning to become a cultural norm, many pessimistic researchers thought people who responded that they were non-prejudiced but then acted with bias were simply liars. Devine trusted the people’s responses and embarked on journey to find out why people want to free themselves of prejudice but unconsciously act with bias.

* * *

Devine started her research as a graduate student at Ohio State University, moving to UW-Madison in 1985 to become an associate professor. She has spent almost 25 years working to put together what she calls her “prejudice puzzle.”

The first puzzle piece was the difference between controlled or conscious and automatic or unconscious responses. In the ’80s, when prejudice was the domain of social psychology, Devine used cognitive psychology research on intentional versus unintentional responses to explain why people will respond with controlled non-prejudiced answers when they have time to process questions, but will have automatic biased actions without processing time.

First, individuals took surveys to show their conscious level of prejudice. Then they took an Implicit Association Test (IAT), a picture/word association test that asks participants to respond as quickly as possible to whether a face or image or phrase is good or bad.

* * *

Devine explains that these biased automatic responses in IATs come from a socialization process that encourages prejudice.

“[Prejudice] is the legacy of our socialization experiences. We all learn these stereotypes and have these biases at the ready whether we condone them or not, whether we think they are good or not, and as a result the immediate reaction is a biased one,” Devine explains. “If you are going to respond in nonbiased ways, you have to gain control or override the automatically activated stereotypic response and instead respond in these thoughtful deliberate ways that might represent your personal values.

* * *

Devine explains that eliminating prejudice is like breaking a habit — in the same way that she had to consciously stop biting her nails as a child, people who want to break the prejudice habit every day have to be aware of their own internal prejudice.

“[Eliminating prejudice] is a process. Making that decision is the first step, but then what you have to do is put some effort into it,” Devine says. “Just making the decision doesn’t mean you wake up one day, stretch and say ‘I’m not prejudiced,’ because you have got this whole socialization experience that you grew up with.”

To support her view that people with conflicting responses are not liars, Devine broke up participants into two groups: high prejudice and low prejudice. The key difference between the two groups is that high-prejudice people will respond with prejudice and not have internal conflict, but low-prejudice people who respond with prejudice feel guilty afterward.

This guilt, what Devine calls prejudice with compunction, is the key to eliminating prejudice.

“When people’s values conflicted, what I predicted is that if they were sincere in their non-prejudicial beliefs, they would feel guilty and self-critical and they would hold themselves accountable,” Devine says. “When given a chance, [low-prejudice] people tried to learn from mistakes, tried to absorb material and at the next opportunity when prejudice was possible, they responded in a fair and unbiased way.”

* * *

Devine . . . began to research student motivation for non-prejudiced behavior and how students could be better reached. [For more, click here.]

In addition to IAT, Devine used startle-eye blink tests, which places sensors on participants’ eyes and then measures their automatic startled-blink response to different faces. Once again the tests proved discrepancies between the reported and automatic response. But what Devine was interested in was the motivations behind the controlled responses.

Devine found that people have both internal motivations (personal values and standards) and external motivations (pressure from society) to act without bias. Through her research, Devine has learned people can be internally motivated, externally motivated or both internally and externally motivated with no correlation between the motivations.

Her research has also shown that it is only the internal motivations that allow people to act without bias in both controlled and automatic responses. People who are externally motivated or internally and externally motivated respond without prejudice on explicit self-report measures but respond in biased ways on implicit measures that do not allow for control over responses.

By knowing the different motivations of individuals, professionals can try to eliminate prejudice via different methods.

“High internal/high external individuals are not good at responding without bias so what they need is help learning to respond without bias. They already have the motivation; we need to give them the skills,” Devine says. “For the high external individuals, we need to create internal motivation. That is what will rid them of prejudice over time.”

Devine’s latest research shows external motivation pushes can cause negative backlash in society, especially on college campuses.

“The low internal/high external individuals, on a campus like this, receive a lot of pressure, and not in a gentle way. People say ‘The way you think is wrong and people who like you are stupid.’ You start to get irritated and you push the message away,” Devine says. “That is one of the things I worry about: backlash. The harder non-prejudiced norms are pushed on them, the more they cement their walls of resistance. For such individuals, reducing prejudice requires finding ways to crack those walls of resistance.”

* * *

As for Devine, although the possibility of a black president shows a growth in prejudice reduction, she sees 25 more years of puzzle-fitting in her future.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”

For some posts examining the the role of implicit associations in elections, see “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters,” On Being a Mindful Voter,”Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,”The Situation of Political Animals,” “Political Psychology in 2008,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,The Psychology of Barack Obama as the Antichrist,” and “The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters.”

To review all of the previous Situationist posts discussing implicit associations click on the “Implicit Associations” category in the right margin, or, for a list of such posts, click here.

Posted in Conflict, Implicit Associations, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Living with a Roommate

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 27, 2008

From Science Daily:

* * *

Anxious college freshmen can relax. No matter who will be sharing their dorm room, they have the power to make the relationship better, University of Michigan research suggests.

The research, published in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was conducted by psychologists Jennifer Crocker and Amy Canevello at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

* * *

Crocker and Canevello studied more than 300 college freshmen who were assigned to share rooms with other students they didn’t know at the start of the first semester. In one study, participants were surveyed once a week for 10 weeks about their attitudes toward friendships in general, and about their feelings of loneliness and experiences of conflict. In a second study, 65 roommate pairs completed daily reports about their relationships during a three-week period in the middle of the semester.

The goal was to see how students’ own approaches to relationships affected the quality of their relationships with roommates and their own emotional health. Among the questions students were asked: How often do you try to be supportive of others? How often do you avoid being selfish or self-centered? And how often do you avoid showing weakness? They were also asked about feelings of loneliness and closeness to other people.

During the first week of the study, 32 percent reported always or almost always feeling lonely, compared to only about 17 percent in the 10th week of the study.

In the first week, about 34 percent said they always or almost always avoided showing weakness in their friendships, compared to only about 13 percent in the 10th week of the study.

Crocker and Canevello found that students who were invested in enhancing and protecting their own self-images were less likely to report that their relationships with their roommates were getting better.

An essential element in reducing loneliness and building a good roommate relationship involves moving away from what Crocker calls an ‘ego-system’ approach, in which people focus on their own needs and try to shore up their self-image, toward an ‘eco-system’ approach, in which people are motivated by genuine caring and compassion for another person.

“Basically, people who give support in response to another person’s needs and out of concern for another person’s welfare are most successful at building close relationships that they find supportive,” Canevello said. “We get support, in other words, by being supportive.

“So these findings provide some good news–students can be the architects of their roommate relationships, enhancing or undermining the quality of these important relationships.”

* * *

More here. To read a related Situationist post, see “What Our Exterior Situation Reveals About Our Interior Situation.”

Posted in Conflict, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Situatiolympics – Abstracts

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 17, 2008

Today’s Boston Globe section “Uncommon Knowledge” abstracts several interesting studies related to the olympics, including two that are quite situationist: one discussing bias in Olympic coverage and the other examining the influence of expectations and counterfactual thinking among medalists. We’ve excerpted those two abstracts below.

* * *

Billings, A. et al., “The Games Through the NBC Lens: Gender, Ethnic, and National Equity in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (June 2008):

This study out of Clemson catalogued all commentary by NBC-affiliated personalities during the network’s prime-time coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Not only were men covered and mentioned more extensively (even when the women were more successful), but attributions of success and failure differed by gender, too. Male athletes were seen as more composed and intelligent in victory, and less committed in defeat. Female athletes were seen as more courageous in victory, and weaker athletes in defeat. The differences were more prevalent among on-site reporters than among the (more scripted) anchors. A similar pattern was found with regard to nationality. Americans were seen as having more concentration, composure, commitment, and courage in victory, while non-Americans were granted more athletic skill. The authors note that “parallels between long-held racial stereotypes (e.g., blacks being ‘born’ athletes and whites being superior intellectually) may transfer in similar ways within the domain of nationalism.”

* * *

McGraw, P. et al., “Expectations and Emotions of Olympic Athletes,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (July 2005) (pdf here):

After the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a team of psychologists published a widely cited study showing that Olympic athletes who had just won a bronze medal appeared to be happier than those who had just won a silver medal. The psychologists concluded that athletes’ emotional responses were not explained by missed expectations but, instead, by close-call counterfactuals: Bronze-medal winners were focused on the fact that they had come close to not winning a medal at all, while the silver-medal winners were focused on the fact that they had come close to winning a gold medal. After the 2000 Sydney Olympics, another team of psychologists updated these findings with a renewed emphasis on the role of prior expectations. They repeated the earlier study – but this time with Sydney athletes, and not just with bronze- and silver-medal winners – and found that performance, relative to media predictions or qualifying-event finishes, was the primary determinant of athletes’ emotions.

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ask and Ye Are More Likely To Receive than You Expect

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2008

From Business Wire and Knowledgebase (the free monthly information source for thoughts, ideas and research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business):

For many of us, the thought of asking someone for help or a favor–be it a colleague, friend, or stranger–is fraught with discomfort. We figure we’re imposing or tend to assume the person will say no, which could leave us embarrassed or humiliated.

But as reported in this month’s Stanford Knowledgebase, new research from Stanford Graduate School of Business verifies the old adage, “Ask and you shall receive.” A series of studies reveals that people tend to grossly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for assistance.

“Our research should encourage people to ask for help and not assume that others are disinclined to comply,” says Frank Flynn, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “People are more willing to help than you think, and that can be important to know when you’re trying to get the resources you need to get a job done, when you’re trying to solicit funds, or what have you.”

In fact, Flynn and Vanessa Lake, a Columbia University psychology doctoral student, have already had feedback to that effect on their paper, published in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “A colleague had just finished reading a draft and was running late to a dinner appointment,” says Flynn. “He was in the subway and realized he should call ahead but didn’t have a cell phone. He told us that our paper gave him courage to ask a stranger to borrow his–and that he was delighted when the person quickly obliged!”

In the first two studies, participants were instructed to ask favors of people in campus settings after estimating how many people they thought would comply with their requests. Participants asked to borrow strangers’ cell phones in order to make calls back to the experimenter, solicited individuals to fill out questionnaires, and asked students to help them find the campus gym–a favor that required obliging students to walk with a participant for at least two blocks in the direction of the gym.

The researchers found that participants consistently overestimated by 50 percent the number of people they’d have to ask to get a certain number to agree with each request. “Participants were initially horrified at the prospect of going out and asking people for such things,” says Lake. “But they’d bound back in to the lab afterward with big smiles, saying, ‘I can’t believe how nice people were!’”

The results were replicated even more dramatically in a real-world scenario involving volunteers for Team in Training, a division of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. These volunteers, who receive training for endurance sports events in exchange for fundraising for the society, were asked to estimate the number of people they thought they would have to solicit to reach their fundraising goal, as well as the average donation they expected.

Once again, volunteers predicted they would have to approach 50 percent more people than were actually needed. Moreover, they underestimated the average donation they’d receive by $17. “People seem to miscalculate how willing others are to say yes to direct requests, even in a conservative case like this where they’re open to soliciting others and the request is significant–anywhere from $30 to more than $1,000,” observes Flynn.

Why do people consistently make such underestimations? The researchers found it’s because they fail to get inside the head of the potential helper. The critical factor, say Flynn and Lake, is that those who are approached for a favor are under social pressure to be benevolent. Just saying no can make them look very bad–to themselves or others.

Two further studies demonstrated this dynamic. When given various scenarios, participants responded differently depending on whether they were in the role of a potential helper or the one who needed the help. Those asking for help thought they were more likely to be turned down than those offering aid. Even more importantly, askers said they thought it would be much easier for others to refuse their request than did potential helpers.

“That’s really the mechanism explaining the effect,” says Flynn. “People’s underestimation of others’ willingness to comply is driven by their failure to diagnose these feelings of social obligation on the part of others.”

One study found that those asking for help incorrectly believed it was more likely they would receive help if they were indirect about it–communicating their request with a look, rather than a direct question. In contrast, people in the position of offering assistance said they were much more likely to help if asked point blank. “That really puts the obligation on them, and makes it very awkward for them to refuse,” says Lake.

Similarly, in a final study, participants incorrectly calculated that they would get more people to answer a questionnaire if they simply handed them a flyer with the request, instead of asking them outright. This was the case whether they were asking people to fill out short, one-page questionnaires, or more burdensome, 10-page questionnaires. “The lesson is that you should pay more attention to how your request is being made than to the size of your request,” says Flynn.

“Other studies we’ve conducted indicate that people overestimate how likely it is that others will come to them for help,” Flynn continues. “This means not only are people not asking for help when in fact they could get it, but they’re not encouraging others to come to them for help when in fact they’re willing to offer it. That tells us that the ‘open-door’ policy is basically ineffective unless people are actively encouraged to use it.”

* * *

For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Helping.”

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 24, 2008

The Situationist has examined various implications that social psychology and related fields for law and legal theory. But what about for the practice of law? Martin Seligman, former American Psychological Association president and one of the leaders of the new field of Positive Psychology, examines the relationship between psychology and the practice of law in his fascinating book Authentic Happiness. Here are some relevant excerpts.

* * *

Thirty years ago, the cognitive revolution in psychology overthrew both Freud and the behaviorists, at least in academia. Cognitive scientists demonstrated that thinking can be an object of science, that it is measurable, and most importantly that it is not just a reflection of emotion or behavior. Aaron T. Beck, the leading theorist of cognitive therapy, claimed that emotion is always generated by cognition, not the other way around. The thought of danger causes anxiety, the thought of loss causes sadness, and the thought of trespass causes anger.

* * *

These two opposite views have never been reconciled. The imperialistic Freudian view claims that emotion always drives thought, while the imperialistic cognitive view claims that thought always drives emotion. The evidence, however, is that each drives the other at times. So the question for twenty-first century psychology is this: under what conditions does emotion drive thinking, and under what conditions does thinking drive emotion?

* * *

Our economy is rapidly changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy. These trends go up and down (when jobs are scarcer, personal satisfaction has a somewhat lesser weight; when jobs are abundant, personal satisfaction counts for more), but the trend for decades is decidedly in favor of personal satisfaction. Law is now the most highly paid profession in America, having surpassed medicine during the 1990s. Yet the major New York law firms now spend more on retention than on recruitment, as their young associates—and even the partners—are leaving law in droves for work that makes them happier. The lure of a lifetime of great riches at the end of several years of grueling eighty-hour weeks as a lowly associate has lost much of its power. The newly minted coin of this realm is life satisfaction.I should be studying by katesheets-flickr

* * *

Law is a prestigious and remunerative profession, and law school classrooms are full of fresh candidates. In a recent poll, however, 52 percent of practicing lawyers described themselves as dissatisfied. Certainly, the problem is not financial. As of 1999, associates (junior lawyers vying to become partners) at top firms can earn up to $200,000 per year just starting out, and lawyers long ago surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals. In addition to being disenchanted, lawyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold: they are the best-paid profession, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Positive psychology sees three principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers. The first is pessimism, defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style . . . . These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events to stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything”). The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable, while the optimist sees them as local, temporary, and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors: Pessimistic life insurance agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT scores and past academic record, than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have more substandard times and bounce back from poor efforts worse than do optimistic swimmers. Pessimistic pitchers and hitters do worse in close games than optimistic pitchers and hitters. Pessimistic NBA teams lose to the point spread more often than do optimistic tams.

Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts. But there is one glaring exception: pessimists do better at law. We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990. . . . These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast to results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimists outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that nonlawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. And if you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

* * *

Lawyers by Wrote - FlickrA second psychological factor that demoralizes lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations. Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has—or, as it turns out, the choices one believes one has—on the job. An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease measures both job demands and decision latitude. There is one combination particularly inimical to health and morale: high job demands coupled with low decision latitude. Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease and depression than individuals in the other three quadrants.

* * *

The deepest of all the psychological factors making lawyers unhappy is that American law has become increasingly a win-loss game. Barry Schwartz distinguishes practices that have their own internal “goods” as a goal for free-market enterprises focused on profits. Amateur athletics, for instance, is a practice that has virtuosity as its good. Teaching is a practice that has learning as its good. Medicine is a practice that has healing as its good. Friendship is a practice that has intimacy as its good. When these practices brush up against the free market, their internal goods become subordinated to the bottom line. Night baseball sells more tickets, even though you cannot really see the ball at night. Teaching gives way to the academic star system, medicine to managed care, and friendship to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. American law has similarly migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principal ends.

* * *

Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences for the legal practitioner: he or she will be depressed, anxious, and angry a lot of the time.

Posted in Book, Emotions, Law, Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 798 other followers

%d bloggers like this: