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Posts tagged ‘Daniel Gilbert’

Don’t Blink! What Are Behavioral Studies Really Saying?

Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink described several interesting accounts of how we make decisions not on reason, but on what is called, ‘rapid cognition.’ For example, Gladwell explained how small adjustments in how a product is presented can greatly change its sales:

“Christian Brothers, wanted to know why, after years of being the dominant brand in [brandy sales], it was losing market share to E&J. Their brandy wasn’t more expensive. It wasn’t harder to find in the store. And they weren’t being out-advertised.  “The problem [was] not the product and it [was] not the branding. It [was] the package.” Christian Brothers looked like a bottle of wine: it had a long, slender spout and a simple off-white label. E&J, by contrast, had a far more ornate bottle: more squat, like a decanter, with smoked glass, foil wrapping around the spout, and a dark, richly textured label. To prove their point, Rhea and his colleagues did [a] test. They served two hundred people Christian Brothers Brandy out of an E&J bottle, and E&J Brandy out of a Christian Brothers bottle. Which brandy won? Christian Brothers, hands-down”

Gladwell’s brandy story is an example of sensation transference, which is a fancy phrase that describes people’s tendency to unconsciously assess a product through emotion or sensation instead of reason. Since Blink was published, behavioral economic studies like these have become more popular with the public and academia. Many of them illustrate how the cognitive mechanisms that constitutes our decisions are out of our consciously control.

One of my favorites is a well known study by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein. In it, they found that the tendency for people to sign up for an organ donation program in several European countries was largely a function of how a question was presented. The countries with nearly a 100% sign up rate used forms that read, “Check the box below if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.” The other countries with no more than a 28% sign up rate used forms that read, “Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” As the graph illustrates, a simple change in words can have a huge influence.

Then there is the fly in the urinal example, another favorite of mine. At the Schiphol Ariport in Amsterdam authorities etched tiny images of flies in the urinals in attempt to, shall we say, improve aim. It worked, and spillage reduced by 80%.

As I said, behavioral studies like these are becoming commonplace as more and more psychologists publish books. But as cool as behavioral studies like these are, their honeymoon phase is ending. Now, psychologists are trying to figure out what to do with them. So far, there have a been a couple of different routes that they have taken. They are used to…

  •  Improve policy and business decisions: Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. 
  • Improve well-being: Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and Flourishand Jonathian Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis
  • Improve decision-making at the individual level: Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, and Kathryn Schulz Being Wrong.
However, if you read these books closely, you’ll find many overlapping points, like these two:

We travel to France, meet a couple from our hometown, and instantly become touring buddies because compared with all those French people who hate us when we don’t try to speak their language and hate us more when we do, the hometown couples seems exceptionally warm and interesting… But when we have them over for dinner a month after returning home, we are surprised to find that our new friends are rather boring and remote compared with our regular friends.


In Barcelona… I met Jon, an American tourist who, like me, did not speak any Spanish. We felt an immediate camaraderie… Jon and I ended up having a wonderful dinner and a deeply personal discussion… we exchanged e-mail addresses… [and] about six months later, Jon and I met again for lunch in New York. This time, it was hard for me to figure out why i’d felt such a connection with him, and no doubt he felt the same. We had a perfectly amicable and interesting lunch, but it lacked the intensity of our first meeting.

Pretty similar right? The first is from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which discusses “how well the human brain can imagine its own future,” and the second is from Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which outlines detriments to everyday reasoning. Their similarities aren’t a huge surprise, though. Both books exist in roughly the same area of study – the psychology of decisions-making/behavioral economics. However, they raise an important question: how are we treating behavioral psychology data?

On the one hand, you could say that psychologists – at least those who write popular books – are being a bit trigger happy when it comes to discussing the implications of behavioral studies. It is a fair point, and one that comes up often. On the other hand, you could claim that it is a good thing that these studies are being so widely applied – they are getting the public and academia (especially economists) excited about psychology.

Keeping both points in mind, I encourage psychologists and lay readers to keep their skeptic caps on at all times. In the mean time, psychologists will have to figure what all their data is really saying…

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Positive Psychology: Prescriptive or Descriptive?

Until the turn of the 20th century, most of psychology focused on how individuals survived under conditions of adversity. It was largely a field that had a self-help stigma attached to it; rarely did it study the conditions in which normal individuals were happy or happiest. The 2000 paper, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” by Martin E. P. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, changed this. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi called for psychology to shift its attention from “curing mental illness,” to “making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling.” From this, positive psychology has come to study and understand the “valued subjective experiences… [of] well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present).” Along the way, it has produced several great books that have outlined its findings, and pushed the positive psychology movement as a whole.

This being said, the positive psychology movement seems to have branched into two groups: those that prescribe, and those that describe. Martin Seligman, who has written a couple of books –  Authentic Happiness and Flourish – that outline prescriptive theories that aim to improve happiness and well-being (two very different things according to Seligman, but not important here), represents the former group. As the head of the positive psychology graduate program at UPenn, Seligman is obviously a big proponent of the prescriptive side of positive psychology. As he explains in the introduction to Flourish:

Teaching positive psychology, researching positive psychology, using positive psychology in practice as a coach or therapost, giving positive psychology exercises to tenth graders in a classroom, parenting little kids with positive psychology, teaching drill sergeants how to teach about post-traumatic growth, meeting with other positive psychologists, and just reading about positive psychology all make people happier (2). 

The later group has resisted this self-help attitude. As Dan Gilbert warns in the introduction to his book Stumbling on Happiness, “this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy.” As I said, psychologists in this camp are more concerned with describing happiness – that is, figuring out what makes happy people happy – than they are with prescribing happiness. There are two possible reasons for this. First, they are skeptical of evidence which demonstrates that the findings of positive psychology actually can help people become happy. Second, they believe it is difficult to say that someone has become happier because they read or studied positive psychology literature – correlation does not equal causation, in other words.

These two points are valid, and I am especially concerned by the second one because it is a thorn in a lot of positive psychology research. Consider this. According to a 2008 paper by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, spending money on others as opposed to ourselves is much more beneficial for our well-being. In their words, “spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending).” So from this we conclude that happy people tend to frequently spend money on others. But here is the question: does spending money on others cause people to be happy? Or do people spend money on others because they are already happy? An interesting question that could be applied to a number of positive psychology studies. For example, one of the biggest findings to come out of the positive psychology movement is that the happiest people have the strongest social relationships. But again, is it that strong social relationships cause people to be happy? Or is it that people have strong social relationships because they are happy?

This is a key question in terms of the descriptive/prescriptive debate. If the correlations between happy people and the activities they participate in are not causal, then there is a big opportunity for people like Seligman who are interested in prescribing happiness. They can identify the characteristics of happy people, and simply tell others to adapt these characteristics (this is what Flourish is about). But if the correlations are causal, then it seems that it would be difficult for psychologists to be prescriptive. In other words, even if psychologists know that people have strong social relationships because they are happy, it doesn’t follow that they would know how to improve sociability.

Ultimately, more time is needed. Positive psychology is young, as I have mentioned, and like any field in its infancy, a few more decades of research will work out the kinks.

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