The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Barry Schwartz’

Barry Schwartz Returns to Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 2, 2011


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Barry Schwartz on the Choices that Matter

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2011

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Barry Schwartz on Using Our Practical Wisdom

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 4, 2011

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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Barry Schwartz on the Situation of Incentives

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 3, 2010

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. Barry Schwartz studies the relationship between economics and psychology, delivering startling insights into modern life.

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable.

Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.

Schwartz’s previous research has addressed morality, decision-making and the varied inter-relationships between science and society. Before Paradox he published The Costs of Living, which traces the impact of free-market thinking on the explosion of consumerism — and the effect of the new capitalism on social and cultural institutions that once operated above the market, such as medicine, sports, and the law.

At the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place in March of 2009, Professor Schwartz’s outstanding presentation was titled “Addicted to Incentives: How the Ideology of Self Interest Can Be Self-Fulfilling.” Here’s the abstract:

“If you want someone to do something, you have to make it worth their while.”  This uncontroversial statement is the watchword of our time. It is the core assumption of economics and of rational choice theory.  It is the linchpin of free market ideology.  And it explains why the first place we look in matters of public policy—from regulating financial markets to improving the quality of education to reducing the high costs of health care—is to the incentive system that governs the behavior of current practitioners.  Uncontroversial.  Self-evident.  And false.  In this talk, I will argue that the reductive appeal to self-interest as the master human motive is a false description of human nature.  At the same time, it can become a true description if people live in a world in which incentives are presumed to explain everything and are used to produce the behavior we want.  Just as people can become addicted to heroin, they can become addicted to incentives.  Looking at modern American society as it is gives us a picture of what people can be, but not of what they must be.

You can watch his presentation on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

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For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Barry Schwartz on Wisdom,” “A Choice Worth Having,” “Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part II,and “Just Choose It!”  To review all of the Situationist posts that discuss the problem with, or illusion of, choices, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Deep Capture, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Barry Schwartz on Wisdom

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 10, 2009

Barry Schwartz was one of the presenters at Saturday’s Third Annual Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference at Harvard Law School.

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Last month, Professor Schwartz gave a TEDtalk, titled “The real crisis? We stopped being wise.”  In it, he “makes a passionate call for practical wisdom as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. He argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.”  Here’s a video of the (21 minute) talk.

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Learn more about the PLMS conference and Professor Schwartz’s presentation here. To review Situationist posts discussing research by Barry Schwartz. click here.

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A Choice Worth Having

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 21, 2009

Barry SchwartzRenowned social psychologist Barry Schwartz has begun writing a blog for the Psychology Today web site called “The Choices Worth Having.”

Professor Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College.  He studies the relationship between economics and psychology, delivering startling insights into modern life.  In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice, for example, Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression?  Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable.

On his new blog, Schwartz is writing about various issues of public concern offering his insightful perspective as a psychologist interested in the intersection of psychology and economics.  Please have a look (here), and share some of his posts with anyone who you think might be interested.  We look forward to reading his posts, and we’re confident that our readers will agree that the new blog is one of The Choices Worth Having.

Here are some excerpts from Professor Schwartz’s terrific first post, titled “A New Council of Psychological Advisors for President Obama?

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After President Barack Obama figures out how to bring the economy out of recession, stabilize financial institutions, end two wars, and get every citizen health insurance, there is something else that he should consider: The United States needs a Council of Psychological Advisors.

This new body would parallel and complement the Council of Economic Advisors. When economists have the president’s ear, all their whispers concern incentives and self-interest. We need psychologists whispering in his other ear, about the economy, education, healthcare, and more.

On the Economy—Understand the “Irrational” Where did our financial institutions go wrong? Many accounts focus on greed, fear, and lack of trust. And why did things get so out of hand? Why was there a housing “bubble”? Somehow, “irrational exuberance” (Robert Schiller) or “animal spirits” (John Maynard Keynes) overwhelmed rational calculations of risk and reward. And it isn’t just that irrational optimism, or even blindness to market fundamentals, gets the better of our rational faculties. Rather, as George Soros has pointed out, these psychological phenomena can become part of a feedback loop that actually changes market fundamentals. “Reflexivity,” he calls it. The housing bubble was not the first such phenomenon, nor will it be the last.

Economists offer little that helps us understand why such bubbles occur or how they might be prevented. They also have little to tell us about how to prevent a “downward spiral of negative expectations” that makes fear of an economic downturn self-fulfilling. Economists largely make assumptions about the rationality of human decision-making and proceed from there. Witness Alan Greenspan’s recent admission that he was mistaken in assuming that markets operate rationally and efficiently. The current crisis makes it clear that ignoring the real psychology of greed, fear, trust, and irrational enthusiasm (0r pessimism) can be perilous. Economists offer little that helps us understand why such bubbles occur or how they might be prevented. A Council of Psychological Advisors could help.

On Education—More than Just Carrots and Sticks: One of President Obama’s top priorities is to improve the quality of American education. This will require recruiting and retaining excellent teachers and finding ways to motivate students. How can this worthy goal be achieved? At the moment, we’re pointing in the direction of school choice and competition to produce better schools, higher pay to produce better teachers, big tests to monitor their performance, and financial incentives to motivate students. A bunch of carrots and sticks. Will these kinds of measures be enough? Research in psychology suggests not. More important than pay (as long as it is adequate) are working conditions that allow teachers to be flexible, autonomous, and creative in their work with students, and that provide teachers with a sense that they are working in a community that has a common purpose. From this perspective, the regimentation of instruction ushered in by big-test accountability is actually counter-productive. And so is the move, now being tried in pilot projects around the country, to pay students for showing up to class and for getting good grades. A Council of Psychological Advisors could help design environments that encourage students to pursue mastery rather than money and teachers to view their work as a calling.

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Moving Beyond GDP: Finally, let us ask the most fundamental question: what is public policy for? We aim to increase collective welfare, but just what does welfare consist in? For the most part, under the sway of economic thinking, our aim has been to make the country more prosperous-to increase per capita GDP. The appeal of this goal is two-fold. First, we assume that if people are richer, they will be freer to choose as individuals the objects and activities that serve their welfare. We (the state and its technocrats) don’t have to choose for them. So wealth serves as a proxy for everything else. And second, GDP can be measured. But like a drunk looking under a lamp post for his car keys, even though he dropped them someplace else (because “that’s where the light is”), it doesn’t help much to pursue what you can measure if what you’re measuring is the wrong thing. It doesn’t help to get better at achieving goals if you’re achieving the wrong goals. Much research in the psychology of well being suggests that some wealth-enhancing policies improve welfare, but others do not. Indeed, some of what it takes to get more prosperous may be counterproductive when it comes to well being. A Council of Psychological Advisors can help here too, in the design of a system of national “psychological accounts” that does a better job of measuring well being than per capita GDP ever could.

Many of us hold out the hope that the coming Obama administration will mark a return to respect for knowledge and expertise. Agencies will be run and staffed not by political cronies, or by people who “just know in their gut” what needs to be done, or by ideologues, but by people who actually have respect for evidence. It would be a shame to bring experts on board in existing agencies, only to have them have to rely on personal intuition rather than knowledge in formulating policies and making decisions that could benefit from psychological expertise. A Council of Psychological Advisors is long overdue. This would be an excellent time to create one.

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To read the entire post, click here.  For a sample of Situationist posts discussing research by Barry Schwartz. click here.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 »

 
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