The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Dan Gilbert’

How Much Choice Would You Choose?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 30, 2012

From Harvard Gazette:

Undergraduates packed Science Center E on Monday to hear two of Harvard’s leading social scientists discuss the way that humans make decisions, and whether having more choices really makes us happier.

The event, “What is Your N? A Personality Test for 4 AM Philosophers,” featured a conversation between social psychologist Dan Gilbert and economist N. Gregory Mankiw, and was sponsored by the Harvard University Initiative on the Foundations of Human Behavior. The discussion was moderated by professors Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and the Department of Sociology and David Laibson of the Department of Economics.

Laibson began the debate with the following thought experiment:

“We have pre-selected 100 different bottles of alcohol, covering all popular categories — beer, wine, rum, gin, vodka, whiskey, etc. Another person (who remains anonymous) is going to take one (regular-sized) drink, poured from one of the 100 bottles. Call him/her the recipient.

You will pick the number of bottles that the recipient will be able to choose among. To give the recipient complete choice, you would pick N = 100. To simplify the recipient’s decision, you would pick N < 100. You can pick any N value from 1 to 100.

If you pick N < 100, a robot will randomly determine which of the original 100 bottles the recipient will receive (with no repeats). You don’t get to pre-select the specific bottles the robot will choose. The N bottles will be presented to the recipient in categories (like whiskeys or vodkas), so the recipient can easily sort through them.

Your job is to pick N so as to maximize the happiness of the recipient.”

Next, Laibson asked the group to choose the number of bottles that they would send to the recipient under two different scenarios. In the first, the recipient would never know that there were 100 bottles to begin with. In the second scenario, he or she would.

As the students tapped on their laptops to submit their responses to the question online, Mankiw and Gilbert had at it. Mankiw kicked off the discussion by saying that the answer was easy for him and, he hoped, for anyone who had taken his introductory economics class. He would send the anonymous stranger all 100 bottles. Without any knowledge of the recipient’s tastes, it made sense to send as many bottles as possible in order to increase the chance that the stranger would get a drink that they would like.

“My wife and I [recently] went to a bar and had a drink and dinner,” he explained. “The bar had a big selection. I had no trouble at all. I said ‘I want a Tanqueray martini on the rocks with a twist.’ If the bartender had said ‘We randomly reduced the number of selections, so we don’t have Tanqueray tonight. We have Bombay Sapphire,’ I would have been a little disappointed. If they had said ‘We only have Gordon’s gin tonight,’ I would have been really upset. And if they had said ‘All we have is Kahlua, and crème de menthe,’ I would have walked out. So it was very clear to me that more selection is good.”

Gilbert said that Mankiw’s answer was not surprising. Americans like choices; the more the better. We want to choose what we want, even if the options are so great that our decision becomes essentially random. But Gilbert said there is more to choice than simply matching selection with preferences, and that there are costs associated with decision making, particularly when the options are too great. To illustrate his point, Gilbert described a study by Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir.

Shafir presented doctors with a pink pill that was said to treat osteoarthritis. The physicians learned about the drug, and then were asked whether or not they would be likely to prescribe it. Most said that they would.

Shafir then went to another group of physicians, this time with a pink and blue pill. He told the group that both would treat osteoarthritis and that the drugs were similar in their effects, aside from their color. He asked this group of doctors whether they would prescribe the pink pill, the blue pill, or neither. Fewer doctors said that they would give patients a pill — either pink or blue — than the group that had been presented with only one pill.

“You should get at least the same number prescribing one of the pills,” said Gilbert. “Or even more, because some will only like blue pills. However, the actual number goes down. Why? Because the physicians say ‘Well, I could do nothing, or choose between one of these two similar pills and I really can’t decide between them, so I’ll do nothing, because nothing looks really different than the pill.”

In terms of Laibson’s thought exercise, Gilbert noted that more bottles and more types of liquor could make the decision more difficult for the recipient. If you offer the drinker wine or beer, and the drinker likes wine, the choice is easy. But if the drinker likes wine and gets four different bottles to choose from versus one type of beer, they might actually choose the beer, even though they prefer wine.

“Because I’ve given you extra choices, you have now gone to the thing you like less, because you can’t think of a good reason to pick among the wines that are so similar,” Gilbert said.

After some waffling, Gilbert, half seriously, gave the number of bottles he would send to the stranger: two.

“Then you have only Kahlua and crème de menthe!” laughed Mankiw.

After Gilbert and Mankiw held forth, Laibson revealed the results of the online poll. Under conditions where the recipient would not be informed if their choices were narrowed, there was a barbell-shaped distribution. A large group of the 220 student respondents said that they would send between zero and 30 bottles to the drinker, with another group up at 100 bottles. In the second scenario, however, where the recipient would know if the selection had been pared, undergraduates overwhelmingly voted to send all 100 bottles to the drinker.

The results were fascinating to Laibson, who has studied employee participation in retirement plans and discovered that enrollment increases dramatically when workers are automatically enrolled and must voluntarily opt out. Given that the criticism for making auto enrollment the default in business is often that the policy is paternalistic, the results of the survey shed light on when people are OK with “Big Brother” and when they are not.

“The message here seems to be ‘Be a paternalist, but keep it a secret,’” Laibson said, eliciting laughter from the students. “The minute the recipient knows [his or her choices have been narrowed], this community gives a different answer [to the thought experiment]. Paternalism is bad when the recipient understands that paternalistic motives organize what happens to them.”

Related Situationist posts:

You can review hundreds of Situationist posts related to the topic of “choice myth” here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Events, Food and Drug Law, Ideology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off

Dan Gilbert at HLS on The Situation of Good Decisions – Another Version

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 26, 2012

From the Harvard Law Website (Jill Greenfield):

There is a simple method for making decisions, from trivial to life changing, that most people find easy to understand but impossible to follow. In a talk entitled “How To Do Precisely the Right Thing At All Possible Times,” Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” and host of the PBS television series “This Emotional Life,” discussed research in psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics that explains why it is indeed possible, yet incredibly difficult, to do the right thing at all possible times.

Gilbert’s talk was sponsored by the Living Well in the Law program at Harvard Law School, which endeavors to complement the teaching of the skills and substance of the law with attention to and development of each student’s sense of purpose as both a professional and a person.

Gilbert explained that our own minds thwart our attempts to make good decisions because our brains evolved to function in a world very different from the one we live in today, one in which decisions were limited to finding a mate and living in small communities, not purchasing long-term care insurance or making other complex decisions.

“We’re on an ancient vessel and can’t evolve quickly enough, but we’re not stupid,” Gilbert said. “The way we got to the moon wasn’t through intuition—we used science and disciplined rational thinking. We can use the same approach to make any kind of personal decision. The question isn’t whether we know how to do precisely the right thing at all the right times. The question is whether we will actually use what we know.”

He said that it should be simple to make a decision—all we need to do is multiply the odds of getting what we want by the value of getting it. But people make two classes of errors when trying to make decisions: errors in odds and errors in value.

Gilbert discussed the psychological phenomena leading to errors in odds, including the imaginability error and the optimism bias. We miscalculate the odds of a particular outcome because the imaginability error causes us to calculate odds based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. For example, people overestimate the odds of dying in a tornado or from using fireworks because those deaths make headlines, while they underestimate the odds of dying by drowning or from asthma, which are in reality far more common. The optimism bias, on the other hand, is simply attributed to the fact that we’re wildly optimistic about the odds of getting what we want, he said. Together, the imaginability error and the optimism bias distort our ability to anticipate odds of a particular outcome.

“The optimism bias occurs because, when you practice doing things, they become easier to do,” Gilbert said. “Motivational speakers tell you to practice thinking about success and not even let thoughts of failure cross your mind. If you just keep thinking about how your plans will work without being willing to entertain equally how they’re not going to work, success becomes easier and easier for you to imagine, and thus the imagineability error is at play. We practice thinking about success so much that it’s inevitable that we’ll overestimate the likelihood that it’s going to happen.”

Calculating how happy we’ll be if we actually achieve the outcome we want—the value of that outcome—is even more difficult. Anticipating value is so difficult because every form of judgment works by comparison, Gilbert explained. To illustrate that point, he used a decision very familiar to law students—deciding between two job offers. Job 1 offers a salary of $100,000, but everyone else at that firm will earn $105,000. The salary for Job 2 is $90,000, but everyone else will earn $85,000. Gilbert said that most study participants respond that Job 2 will make them happier because, although they’ll make less money, they won’t feel underpaid. But for that to be the right decision, one who chooses Job 2 must then walk around all day in that new job thinking about how wonderful that extra $5,000 is. In reality, people will not spend time making that comparison once they dive in and start the job.

“You forget about the setup. The comparison you make when determining the value of getting what you want is no longer the comparison you make once you get it, so it bedevils your attempt to make a good decision,” Gilbert said.

He warned that there is really nothing we can do to ensure that we make the right decisions—there’s no pill we can swallow, class we can take, or book we can read that will prevent us from making these errors in odds and value because they’re simply so natural to us.

“How can you do the right thing at all possible times? You probably can’t,” he said. “The best thing you can do is to catch yourself making these errors and know to watch out for them. Ask if yesterday’s price really matters today, or if today’s comparison will really matter tomorrow. We can stop ourselves not from making errors, but from completing errors.”

Related Situationist posts.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert at HLS on The Situation of Good Decisions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 23, 2012

From the Harvard Gazette:

To take a gratifying, low-paying job or a well-paid corporate position, to get married or play the field, to move across the country or stay put: The fact that most people face such choices at some point in their lives doesn’t make them any easier. No one knows the dilemma better than law students, who are poised to enter a competitive job market after staking years of study on their chosen field.

When faced with a tough choice, we already have the cognitive tools we need to make the right decision, Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and host of the PBS series “This Emotional Life,” told a Harvard Law School (HLS) audience on Feb. 16. The hard part is overcoming the tricks our minds play on us that render rational decision-making nearly impossible.

Gilbert’s talk, titled “How To Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times,” was part of Living Well in the Law, a new program sponsored by the HLS Dean of Students Office that aims to help law students consider their personal and professional development beyond the fast track of summer associate positions and big-law job offers.

There is a relatively simple equation for figuring out the best course of action in any situation, Gilbert explained: What are the odds of a particular action getting you what you want, and how much do you value getting what you want? If you really want something, and you identify an action that will make it likely, then taking that action is a good move.

Unfortunately, Gilbert said, “these are also the two ways human beings screw up.”

First, he said, humans have a hard time estimating how likely we are to get what we want. “We know how to calculate odds [mathematically], but it’s not how we actually calculate odds,” he said.

We buy lottery tickets, because we “never see interviews with lottery losers.” If every one of the 170 million losing ticket holders were interviewed on television for 10 seconds apiece, we’d be having the image of losing drilled into our brains for 65 straight years, he said.

“When something’s easy to imagine, you think it’s more likely to happen,” he said.

For example, if asked to guess the number of annual deaths in the United States by firework accidents and storms versus asthma and drowning, most people will vastly overestimate the former and underestimate the latter. That’s because we don’t see headlines when someone dies of an asthma attack or drowns, Gilbert said. “It’s less available in your memory, but it is in fact more frequent.”

Then there’s the fact that we’re prone to irrational levels of optimism, a pattern that has been documented across all areas of life. Sports fans in every city believe their team has better-than-average odds of winning; the vast majority of people believe they’ll live to be 100.

A study of Harvard seniors, Gilbert gleefully reported, showed they on average believed they’d finish their theses within 28 to 48 days, but most likely within 33 — “a number virtually indistinguishable from their best-case scenario.” In reality, they complete their theses within 56 days on average.

Still, he said, calculating our odds of success is actually the easy part. “What’s really hard in life is knowing how much you’re going to value the thing you’re striving so hard to get,” he said.

When we consider buying a $2 cup of coffee at Starbucks, for example, we don’t compare the satisfaction of a morning caffeine jolt against the millions of other things we could purchase for $2. Rather, we compare the value of that cup of coffee against our own past experiences. If the same coffee only cost $1.50 yesterday, we might balk at paying $2 for it today.

“One of the problems with this bias, this tendency to pay attention to change, is that it’s hard to know if things really did change,” he said. “Whether things changed is often in the eye of the beholder.

“It turns out that every form of judgment works by comparison,” he said. “People shop by comparison.” Unfortunately, our comparisons are easily manipulated, and comparing one option with all other possible options is an impossible task.

Real estate companies, for example, show potential buyers “set-up properties,” rundown fixer-uppers that they actually own, to lower their clients’ expectations for houses that are actually for sale.

In his own lab, Gilbert’s research team had two groups of college students predict how much they would enjoy eating a bag of potato chips. The group that sat in a room with chocolates on display predicted they’d enjoy the chips less, while the second group — stuck in a room with the chips and a variety of canned meats — predicted much higher enjoyment of the salty snack.

But when the students rated their enjoyment of the chips while they were eating them, those differences disappeared. While their previous visual judgment was tainted by comparison, their judgment of the actual taste was not.

“The comparisons you make when you’re shopping are not the ones you’ll make after you’ve bought,” Gilbert said.

The human mind evolved to deal with different dilemmas than the ones we face today, Gilbert explained. Our ancestors weighed short-term consequences to ensure their survival, evolving a snap-judgment process that often serves us poorly when making long-term decisions such as buying a home, investing in the stock market, or making a cross-country move.

The brain “thinks like the old machine it is,” Gilbert said. “We are in some sense on a very ancient vessel, and we are sailing a very ancient sea.”

Still, he told his audience, we have the ability to overcome these evolutionary roadblocks to self-aware, smart decision-making, as long as we acknowledge our biases.

“We’ve been given that gift,” Gilbert said. “The question is, will we use it?”

Related Situationist posts.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert Returns to Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2012

Tomorrow (2/16) Daniel Gilbert, Situationist friend, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of Stumbling on Happiness, and host of the PBS television series This Emotional Life, returns to Harvard Law to deliver a talk entitled

“How To Do Precisely the Right Thing At All Possible Times.”

Most experts tell us what to decide but they don’t tell us how. So the moment we face a novel decision—should I move to Cleveland or Anchorage? Marry Jennifer or Joanne? Become an architect or a pastry chef?—we’re lost. Is it possible to do the right thing at all possible times? In fact, there is a simple method for making decisions that most people find easy to understand but impossible to follow. New research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics explains why.

February 16 – 4pm WCC – 2036 Milstein East C.

Posted in Education, Events, Life, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Happy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 7, 2011

From TEDTalks:

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that well be miserable if we dont get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things dont go as planned.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Psychological Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2011

Situationist friend, Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, describes the psychological impulses that make it difficult for humans to confront the threat of global warming.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Environment, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Trust Me: You’ll Enjoy this Post

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 21, 2010

Craig Lambert has a worthwhile interview with Situationist friend, Dan Gilbert (author of the best-selling 2007 psychology book Stumbling on Happiness and host of the recent PBS television series This Emotional Life.), in the current issue of Harvard Magazine.   Here are some excerpts.

* * *

In a recent issue of Science, Gilbert and his coauthorspsychology graduate student Matthew Killingsworth, Rebecca Eyre, Ph.D. ’05, and [Situationist Contributor] Timothy Wilson, Aston professor of psychology at the University of Virginiareported findings on “surrogation”: consulting the experience of another person, a surrogate, in deciding whether something will make you happy. They discovered that the direct experience of another person trumps the conjecturing of our own minds.

The surrogate’s verdict is a useful guide because we are far more similar to each other than we realize. “If you look at other human beings, we seem amazingly varied,” Gilbert explains. “What we forget is that if a Martian came and looked at us, he wouldn’t be able to tell any of us apart.” The same holds for our inner reactions. “One of the ways we’re quite similar is in our hedonic or emotional reactions to events,” he continues. “Yes, it’s true that you may like strawberry ice cream more than chocolate, whereas I prefer chocolate. But that shouldn’t obscure the much bigger point: everybody likes ice cream more than they like gall-bladder surgery. Everybody prefers a weekend in Paris to being hit over the head with a two-by-four.” Economic markets exist for this very reason: to a large degree, people like the same things.

Gilbert volunteers a thought experiment: ask a random person to list all possible human experiences, ranking them from best to worst. Then ask another randomly chosen individual to do the same. Gilbert predicts, “You’d see 99 percent overlap in their arrangements.” That’s why surrogation works. (It isn’t, however, a perfect guide, only better than the alternatives. Surrogation’s a poor strategy in those rare circumstances where human emotional responses vary widely—e.g., to a question like, “What’s your favorite number?”)

In one experiment to test surrogation, the psychologists asked a sample of women to predict how much they would enjoy a “speed date” with a particular man. Some women saw his personal profile and photograph; others learned nothing about him other than how much another woman (a stranger) had enjoyed her speed date with him. The second group predicted their enjoyment far more accurately than the first. Both groups had expected the reverse, and oddly enough, despite the outcome, both groups preferred to have the profile/photograph for their next date.

This suggests that ideas trump reality. But in predicting your likings, even someone else’s direct experience trumps mental hypotheses—which is why surrogation works. But to be helpful, the surrogate’s experience must be recent. “People are very poor at remembering how happy they were,” Gilbert says. “So it’s not very useful to ask, ‘How much did you like something you experienced last year?’ People get most questions about happiness wrong. But there is one question they get right: how happy are you right now?”

* * *

To read the entire article and listen to parts of the interview, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Dan Gilbert on Why the Brain Scares Itself,” “Sheena Iyengar on ‘The Multiple Choice Problem,’” “Sheena Iyengar’s Situation and the Situation of Choosing,” Can’t Get No Satisfaction!: The Law Student’s Job Hunt – Part II,” “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions,”and “Just Choose It!

Posted in Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on Why the Brain Scares Itself

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 8, 2009

Dan Gilbert1For the Harvard Law Record, Harvard Law Students, Anush Emelianova and Gustavo Ribeiro, wrote a nice summary of Dan Gilbert‘s recent lecture at Harvard Law School.  His lecture, titled “Why Does the Brain Scare Itself?,” drew a  crowd of roughly 150 students and contributed to Gilbert’s reputation as an amazing and captivating speaker.    Here’s Emilianova and Ribeiro’s description.

* * *

Why does the brain scare itself?  On Monday, October 19, Professor Dan Gilbert confronted this question in an event sponsored by first-year Section VI. Professor Gilbert, who wrote  the bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness, is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory. He opened his remarks by stating that the power of the mind to automatically make predictions by simulating outcomes is the key feature that distinguishes humans from other animals.

Because the brain is made up of semi-independent systems, it can talk to itself or even “scare itself.”   But Prof. Gilbert believes that the limited mental capacities of humans impose limits on the accuracy of predictions about the emotional impact of future events. He demonstrated this by identifying four limitations of the brain’s ability to simulate the future: unrepresentativeness, essentialization, truncation, and presentism.

According to Prof. Gilbert, humans’ mental simulations are unrepresentatively based on the individual’s best or worst memories, failing to correspond to the average experience.  When the mind produces imaginary scenarios, the images tend to be essentialized, that is, distilled to a simplified image with the details cut out.  Remembered experiences also interfere with accurate prediction because they are truncated and fail to incorporate the ability to adapt to different situations over time.  Furthermore, Prof. Gilbert believes the human mind has a “presentist” bias, accepting in most circumstances the fiction that tomorrow will be exactly like today and that the feelings at the moment of making a decision will persist until the outcome of that decision arises. As an example, Professor Gilbert demonstrated a photograph of a 16-year-old who had tattooed Pac-Man on her head, suggesting that the excitement of the moment would eventually give way to regret.

Professor Gilbert does not believe humans have the capacity to systematically prevent errors in mental simulations.  “As I marinate you in the bloopers and foibles, the mistakes and biases of the human mind, you must be thinking, is there anything we can do about this? I’m happy to tell you the answer is no,” he said.

Despite the failure of predictions to account for dynamic circumstances, humans tend to adapt or rationalize outcomes to make themselves feel better.  Prof. Gilbert illustrated this tendency with the satisfied attitude of Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles.

Despite missing out on being part of one of the most successful bands ever, Best said in a 1994 interview that, “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” Professor Gilbert argued that this was a striking example of rationalization.

Prof. Gilbert also indicated that there may be techniques available to minimize some types of cognitive error.  “Surrogation,” or asking others about their experience of a similar situation, can act as a more reliable guide than one’s own expectations. In fact, according to Prof. Gilbert, any random person’s actual experience of a given situation is likely to be much more predictive of our future enjoyment than our imaginary simulation of that same experience.

“Human beings are all basically the same.”

* * *

The Project on Law and Mind Sciences will make the video of Gilbert’s talk available within the next few weeks.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Dan Gilbert To Speak at Harvard Law School,” “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions,” Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology,”The Situation of Climate Change,” The Heat is On,”The Situation of Happiness,” and “Conversation with Dan Gilbert.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Emotions, Events, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2009

Situationist friend Dan Gilbert, who will be speaking today at Harvard Law School (details here), recently completed another fascinating TedTalk. Here is their summary:   “Dan Gilbert presents research and data from his exploration of happiness — sharing some surprising tests and experiments that you can also try on yourself. Watch through to the end for a sparkling Q&A with some familiar TED faces.”  Here’s the video.

* * *

* * *

For a sample of previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert and his work, see “The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty,” “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology,” “Something to Smile About,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” The Heat is On,” “Don’t Worry, But Don’t Be Happy, Either?,” “The Situation of Happiness,” “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” and “Conversation with Dan Gilbert.”

To review a collection of Situationist posts about the psychology of happiness, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Conflict, Cultural Cognition, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Dan Gilbert To Speak at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 18, 2009

Gilbert Poster

For more details, click here.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Events, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2009

FearThis spring, Situationist friend, Dan Gilbert published another illuminating and entertaining op-ed, titled What We Don’t Know Makes Us Nervous,” (New York Times, May 21, 2009).  Here’s an excerpt.

* * *

Seventy-six years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the inaugural dais and reminded a nation that its recent troubles “concern, thank God, only material things.” In the midst of the Depression, he urged Americans to remember that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money” and to recognize “the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success.”

“The only thing we have to fear,” he claimed, “is fear itself.”

As it turned out, Americans had a great deal more to fear than that, and their innocent belief that money buys happiness was entirely correct. Psychologists and economists now know that although the very rich are no happier than the merely rich, for the other 99 percent of us, happiness is greatly enhanced by a few quaint assets, like shelter, sustenance and security. Those who think the material is immaterial have probably never stood in a breadline.

Money matters and today most of us have less of it, so no one will be surprised by 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.

But light wallets are not the cause of our heavy hearts. After all, most of us still have more inflation-adjusted dollars than our grandparents had, and they didn’t live in an unremitting funk. Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier, and the fin de siècle was not an especially gloomy time. Clearly, people can be perfectly happy with less than we had last year and less than we have now.

So if a dearth of dollars isn’t making us miserable, then what is? No one knows. I don’t mean that no one knows the answer to this question. I mean that the answer to this question is that no one knows — and not knowing is making us sick.

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?

* * *

To find out, click here to read the entire op-ed.

Dan Gilbert will be speaking at Harvard Law School on Monday, October 19.  Stay tuned to the Situationist for further details.

For a sample of previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert and his work, see “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology,” “Something to Smile About,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” The Heat is On,” “Don’t Worry, But Don’t Be Happy, Either?,” “The Situation of Happiness,” “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” and “Conversation with Dan Gilbert.”

To review a collection of Situationist posts about the psychology of happiness, click here.

Posted in Distribution, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 20, 2009

The good folks at Big Think interviewed Situationist friend Dan Gilbert and asked him about the future of psychology.  Among other things, Gilbert had this to say.

Surely the other big problem facing psychology is the problem facing any behavioral science in the United States of America, which is we have leaders who don’t much appreciate behavioral science. It’s an odd thing, given that virtually every problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of human behavior. These aren’t sciences that gather much respect. And as a result, they’re not sciences that are doing very well in terms of funding. It’s quite possible that psychology as we know it won’t exist as a science in 10 or 15 years if we follow the present course of funding in the U.S.A.

The video of his complete response is below.

* * *

To review previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert’s work click here.

Posted in Neuroscience, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Climate Change

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2009

From Pop!Tech and YouTube, here is Situationist friend, Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert speaking  about the psychology of global warming.

* * *

* * *

For related Sitautionist posts, see “Jeffrey Sachs on the Situation of Global Poverty,” “The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Geography, History, Illusions, Law, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Conversation with Dan Gilbert

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2008

Claudia Dreifus published her interview of Situationist friend, Dan Gilbert in The New York Times last week. It’s a fascinating exchange. Here’s a sample.

* * *

At Harvard, the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert is known as Professor Happiness. That is because the 50-year-old researcher directs a laboratory studying the nature of human happiness. Dr. Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” [see book cover in right margin] was a New York Times paperback best seller for 23 weeks and won the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

Q. HOW DID YOU STUMBLE ONTO YOUR AREA OF STUDY?

A. It was something that happened to me roughly 13 years ago. I spent the first decade of my career studying what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error,” which is about how people have the tendency to ignore the power of external situations to determine human behavior.

* * *

I’d have been content to work on this for many more years, but some things happened in my own life.

Within a short period of time, my mentor passed away, my mother died, my marriage fell apart and my teenage son developed problems in school. What I soon found was that as bad as my situation was, it wasn’t devastating. I went on.

One day, I had lunch with a friend who was also going through difficult times. I told him: “If you’d have asked me a year ago how I’d deal with all this, I’d have predicted that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”

He nodded and added, “Are we the only people who could be so wrong in predicting how we’d respond to extreme stress?”

That got me thinking. I wondered: How accurately do people predict their emotional reactions to future events?

Q. HOW DOES THAT RELATE TO UNDERSTANDING HAPPINESS?

A. Because if we can’t predict how we’d react in the future, we can’t set realistic goals for ourselves or figure out how to reach to them.

What we’ve been seeing in my lab, over and over again, is that people have an inability to predict what will make us happy — or unhappy. If you can’t tell which futures are better than others, it’s hard to find happiness. The truth is, bad things don’t affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That’s true of good things, too. We adapt very quickly to either.

So the good news is that going blind is not going to make you as unhappy as you think it will. The bad news is that winning the lottery will not make you as happy as you expect.

Q. ARE YOU SAYING THAT PEOPLE ARE HAPPY WITH WHATEVER CARDS ARE DEALT TO THEM?

A. As a species, we tend to be moderately happy with whatever we get. If you take a scale that goes from zero to 100, people, generally, report their happiness at about 75. We keep trying to get to 100. Sometimes, we get there. But we don’t stay long.

We certainly fear the things that would get us down to 20 or 10 — the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a serious challenge to our health. But when those things happen, most of us will return to our emotional baselines more quickly than we’d predict. Humans are wildly resilient.

Q. DO MOST OF US HARBOR UNREASONABLE NOTIONS OF WHAT HAPPINESS IS?

A. Inaccurate, flawed ideas. Few of us can accurately gauge how we will feel tomorrow or next week. That’s why when you go to the supermarket on an empty stomach, you’ll buy too much, and if you shop after a big meal, you’ll buy too little.

Another factor that makes it difficult to forecast our future happiness is that most of us are rationalizers. We expect to feel devastated if our spouse leaves us or if we get passed over for a big promotion at work.

But when things like that do happen, it’s soon, “She never was right for me,” or “I actually need more free time for my family.” People have remarkable talent for finding ways to soften the impact of negative events. Thus they mistakenly expect such blows to be much more devastating than they turn out to be.

Q. SO, IF WE DIDN’T HAVE THESE MECHANISMS, WOULD WE BE TOO DEPRESSED TO GO ON?

A. There may be something to that. People who are clinically depressed often seem to lack the ability to reframe events. That suggests that if the rest of us didn’t have this, we might be depressed as well.

* * *

Click here to read the entire interview, including Dan Gilbert’s responses to the following questions: AS THE AUTHOR OF A BEST SELLER ABOUT HAPPINESS, DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON HOW PEOPLE CAN ACHIEVE IT?”; “HAVE YOU JUST EXPRESSED A VERY ANTI-AMERICAN IDEA?” ; SO YOU HOLD WITH THE NOTION THAT “MONEY CAN’T BUY YOU HAPPINESS”?”; and “ARE YOU, DAN GILBERT, HAPPY?”

For a list of other Situationist posts discussing Dan Gilbert’s work on happiness, click here.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Emotions, Life, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 798 other followers

%d bloggers like this: