Category Archives: Psychology

Fine or No Fine

While the Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake is baking in the oven, I’m finally writing this long-due post. A good friend of mine was visiting San Francisco back in Feb and I thought about writing this post, but one thing led to another and my well-planned “so-my-friend-visited-from-Israel-last-week” intro was no longer appropriate. That is, until he surprise visited last week again! So here we go again…taking action before it’s too late this time, because its a very fitting introduction to the study I want to talk about which was done in Haifa, the city where he’s from.

I’ve read this research a while back. It’s a great example of how the traditional economic incentives of giving people money or making people pay for something not leading to the action/behavior you want.

So, here’s the problem. Parents are often late to pick up their child or children from daycare in Israel. It’s not really a problem that my friends and I have to think about at our stage in life, but walk with me. Parents are supposed to pick up their kid from daycare at 4pm, but probably because of work and other commitments (or because they’re Israelis?…they can be late sometimes), they’re often running late. They came up with a solution: lets add a small fine to nudge parents to be on time. The fine will be 10 Israeli Shekel, which is around $3 USD, if the parents are more than 10 minutes late.

They ran an experiment with 10 daycare centers around Haifa – 6 of them were randomized to introduce the fine, the rest were not to introduce the fine. And then the researchers observed for 10 weeks – what happened?

There were more parents who came late after the introduction of the fine, than at daycares without the introduction of the fine.

What? The fine was supposed to reduce the number of lateness, but it surprisingly went the other way and increased it.

Alright, well, that’s not great. Lets reverse it then. We don’t want to increase lateness, so lets put it back to normal. On the 17th week of the experiment, they removed the fines so that all the 10 daycares had no fine again. They found that the effects persisted – meaning that parents who were late with the fines remained late after the fines were removed! There were more parents arriving late to the daycares that previously had the fines even after the fine period was over…ahhhh!

 

Why did this happen?

The researchers hypothesize that it’s because parents and the daycare had an “incomplete contract” when it came to being late for pick-ups. This means that the exact consequences of arriving late were not specified. Without an explicit rule, some parents might feel that they shouldn’t be late too many times, and they’re not sure how the school will handle these situations. However, with the introduction of the fine, parents are now thinking “I’m paying for it, so its okay I’m a few minutes late! They’re taking care of my child.”

That’s just one possible explanation. In reality, the researchers were so surprised by the results that they wrote, “the possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished was not even considered” in the existing literature. And thus lies the importance of running experiments and testing whether your hypotheses are right or wrong, because we could sometimes surprise ourselves.

Much of this could be culture specific (having worked with an Israeli, I can attest to significant cross-cultural (uh, hiccups?) differences) or it could be because the punishment is not severe enough. Either way, this study humbles us to be fascinated by behavioral research because you can implement some change, hoping for one result and have it go completely the opposite way! Maybe similar to me putting rhubarb, sugar, butter, flour, into the oven hoping for a rhubarb cake and then have it turn out…hm. I guess someone might hope for chocolate cake instead.

See you again soon my friend!

Love,
Steph

follow me on instagram (@brainandthewind) to see the pictures of the rhubarb upside-down cake!

Source for study: Gneezy, Uri, and Aldo Rustichini. “A fine is a price.” The Journal of Legal Studies 29.1 (2000): 1-17.

Here’s the graph with the main result: fine is a price graph

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It’s a Fresh Start

A friend of mine from Penn, HengChen Dai, have been writing and publishing papers about this phenomenon called the “Fresh Start Effect”, which I find particularly relevant as I board my flight to San Francisco. Her and her collaborators found that people are more likely to make aspirational changes such as exercising more or quitting smoking whenever there’s a new start. Remember two weeks ago when everyone was crafting their New Year Resolutions? That’s because of the fresh start effect too. When the calendar turned to a new year, you feel a little detached from the 2016 “I-spent-too-much-time-on-the-couch” self and more connected to the 2017 “I-am-determined-to-exercise” self. At these fresh start moments, you’re more empowered that you’ll be able to accomplish these goals.

These researchers looked at Google searches and found that searches for keywords towards aspirational goals such as “diet” increased by 82.1% on Jan 1st compared to the searches of an average day! This effect is not limited to New Years, but also applies to a new month, a new semester at school, a new city, a new job, etc. I’m excited to be starting a new role as a research associate and also moving to a new city – so, double up the fresh start effect! It’s definitely a time for me to set goals, both professional and personal ones, and use this fresh start as an opportunity to make positive changes or at least experiment with different things.

For those nudgers out there, you might want to take advantage of the fresh start effect when you’re thinking of a good time for behavioral interventions. Phrasing and implementing the intervention as a fresh start will give the effect an extra boost!

-S

Source: Dai, Hengchen, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis. “The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior.” Management Science 60.10 (2014): 2563-2582.

New Year Resolution for 2017

Can’t believe it’s been a whole year since my last post! Somehow it feels way shorter than that – I still remember writing the post on people stealing my laptop at the coffeeshop like it was yesterday. It reminds me of my time at MIT and Boston, and also the many amazing things that have happened afterwards in 2016. What a year it has been – the ups and downs, the old and new, the things I’ve learned about myself, about people around me, and about the world are simply too much to recount in this one post. They have undoubtedly shaped how I view and approach things in life, so I’m sure their influences will be seen in my upcoming posts. In other news, I’m going to start writing this blog again! Still focusing on applying psychology/behavioral economics research into daily lives. 

In the last 5 months, I’ve deliberately tried to be less type-A about things. So in an effort to continue doing that, I’m going to refrain from making a list of things I’ve accomplished and learned in 2016. I also debated as to whether I should make New Year Resolutions at all this year because it also sounds quite type-A to me. However, I think of it more as “Improvements I want to make”, which can really be implemented at any point in time within a year, but complementing it with the Fresh Start Effect (Jan 1st is a good boost in motivation), makes January 1st a great day to implement changes you want in your life. Two years ago, I wrote about how to set NYR without actually posting about them, which means I didn’t really follow my own advice of telling others about your resolutions. So, I’m going to do that this year.

The biggest resolution of this year is to be kinder to myself.

This is broken down into the following 3 actionable items – 

#1 talk to my heart kiddo every day
One of the most eye-opening thought I heard last year was that “you can go to sleep to rest, but your heart never stops beating for you and it never gets to sleep and rest”. Isn’t that amazing? I’ve never really thought about my heart this way, or thought about my heart at all…unless something went wrong with it. So this year, I want to be more grateful for my heart and be nicer to it. I’ve also found it easier to be nice, soft, friendly, and understanding to people other than to myself. So I’ve created this “kiddo”, a little baby girl character (think: Inside Out), that represents my heart. Someone who I can talk to in my imagination and be naturally softer to because it’s a tiny human (and you don’t want to be mean to tiny humans because they’re fragile). It’s like talking to another person, even if it is still me. This coming year, I’ll have a brief conversation (my plan is to say good morning to her) with this kiddo every day. 

#2 one alone day a month
Two years ago, I set a resolution of doing an alone day/”me-day” once a month. The idea was that I won’t talk to anyone that day and also do things that I want to do for myself. It’s a day dedicated to me. Little did I know it was a preview to my 10-day silent meditation retreat this past November, from which I’ve learned and gained a tremendous amount, including resolution #1 above. The retreat helped me refine the definition of alone days. In addition to not talking to my closest friends that day, which in effect only meant I spent the day checking emails, writing blog posts, going to a coffee shop, and being equally busy and thinking equally as much, I want to stay away from all communications (phones, computers, conversations, etc.) on my alone day. By getting rid of distractions, I’ll spend this day doing nothing and thinking about nothing, which I’ve found to be incredibly difficult. Let me know if you want to join in on this one!

#3 stop eating when i say “i’m full”
This resolution is also recycling from previous resolutions, not because I failed on them previously, like you’d imagine the cliche “lose weight” and “exercise more” resolutions to turn out (again see how to set resolutions), but because they’ve been so successful that I want to keep them top of mind and continue to work on them. This one was refined in collaboration with my younger sister, Sharon, from the previous “stop eating when full” to “stop eating when I utter the words I’m full” –  a subtle difference that not only seemed to keep her happy but is also quite profound. The advantage of this subtle improvement is that pinpointing when I said the words “I’m full” is much more concrete than just saying i’ll stop when i’m full, which leaves a lot of room (no pun intended) for negotiations. When am I full? One can easily convince themselves that they’re not that full and can still eat another bite of that fish tacos even when they’re stuffed to the brim. With the current resolution, once we’ve said the words “I’m full”, we have to stop eating. [confession: we ate grapes after saying i’m full during our Jan 1st dinner :3]

So that’s it! My 3 new year resolutions for this year. They all feed into being kinder to my body and my mind, which both honestly need a little bit more love from me. My prediction is that 2017 will be a year of understanding, letting go, rebuilding, accepting, exploring, risk taking, and more. Very (very) looking forward to this coming year – for the new job, new city, new relationship – and if one thing can be certain, it is that I don’t know what this year will bring, which in itself sounds exciting to me.

What are your resolutions? Share them in the comments below.

With Love,
Steph

On Happiness

In honor of one of my new year resolution in 2015 to write a new blog post every week, this will be my last weekly post of 2015. It still does not feel like the end of the year came and went. Ever since my friend asked me about my reflections this past year (which I admit I have completely forgotten to reflect on), I have been doing more thinking and formulating my new year resolution for 2016. No doubt, I will be revisiting the post I wrote last year for some guidelines.

But today, I want to write about happiness. It always amazes and sometimes confuses me how researchers can study this topic. Inherently a subjective matter, happiness is a fluctuating, hard-to-verify measurement unlike other more steady cousins, such as income or GDP. This disadvantage has led some major fields, including Economics, to stay away from tackling this so-called “fluffy” measurement. At the same time, it has intrigued many Psychologists and prompted subfields such as positive psychology.

Lottery Winners and Accident Victims 

In a study by Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, they asked a bunch of lottery winners and paraplegics about their happiness levels. The hypothesis is that those who had won the lottery will be much happier than others, while those who had lost a limb will be unhappier than others. Not a crazy hypothesis.

People were asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 0 to 5 (a 6 point scale) of how positive or negative the event (lottery/accident) was. Surprisingly, the ratings of happiness between the two groups, lottery winners and accident victims, were not that different from each other. Don’t get me wrong – in statistics terms, they were significant, but not by much, considering their difference in magnitude. The average happiness rating for lottery winners was 3.78, while for accident victims it was 1.28 (reminder: this was on a 6-point scale).

Now, the measure used in this experiment is a pretty bad one using only one question and a self-reported survey. People are pretty bad at defining something as broad as “happiness”, everyone interprets the word differently, and self-reported measures are not always honest. So, it is better to compare within subjects, meaning we get the same person to answer the questions so that it’s at least a comparable definition of “happiness”. With this, they found another interesting fact: the happiness level did not increase or decrease after winning the lottery OR after being paralyzed from below the waist.

Wait what? what happened? This is because people adapt to situations extremely quickly. Before we win the lottery, we think that our lives will change dramatically afterwards and we will be super happy. However, a few things happen after you really win the lottery. The usual activities you used to do are less enjoyable now; fun things now feel boring. Secondly, habituation occurs and having lottery cash becomes your new baseline. The same effect goes for paraplegics in the opposite direction.

This paper is one of the more famous experiments showing that happiness is all relative to our baseline. To me, it also remarkably shows how easy we adapt to new environments. For example, you might be convinced that working towards that huge promotion next year will make you happier, but you’ll quickly adjust to it – so don’t spend your whole life in the office and enjoy life! You might think that breaking up with your loved one means you’ll never be happy again, but you’ll adjust to a new norm and soon be happy again.

2016 looks like a year of changes and uncertainty for me, but I’m certain with humans superb adapting ability, it will be a happy year regardless. I wish you all great happiness in 2016! HAPPY NEW YEAR 🙂

With love,

Steph

Source: Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917.

Could you watch my laptop?

“Would you mind keeping an eye on my computer?” I asked, wanting to get a refill for my coffee.

“Yeah, sure” responds the stranger sitting next to me.

This conversation might sound familiar to those of you who frequent coffee shops and cafés alone and stay there for hours on end. At some point, you’ll need to go to the bathroom, want another cup of coffee, or maybe a chocolate croissant as well.

When I came back to my computer, said stranger asks, “Why would you trust me with your computer?”

Caught off guard, I pause for a second and said, “I don’t have a reason to, but Psychology research suggests….”

Yes, yes, I quoted research to a complete stranger at a coffee shop (don’t judge). In all seriousness, here is what research said about asking strangers to watch your stuff for you –

Beach Blanket Study

In the summer of 1972, Psychologist Tom Moriarty set up 56 fake thefts to happen at Jones Beach in New York. They were interested in seeing whether people witnessing the theft would intervene and stop the crime from happening.

Here is how the experiment went – a “confederate” (probably was a research assistant like myself) would lay a beach blanket somewhere close to where an individual, a couple, or a family might have set up their beach blanket and basking in the sunshine. Then, for half the time, the confederate would listen to the portable radio for 2 minutes, and then say to the people in the next blanket, “excuse me, I’m going out for a swim, would you watch my things?” For the other half of the time, the confederate would listen to the radio for 2 minutes, then engage in some unrelated conversation and leave for his or her swim.

While the beach blanket and the portable radio were unattended, another research assistant would come and pretend to steal the radio. The question is: would those people in the beach blanket next to them witnessing the crime stop the stealer?

In the condition where the strangers agreed to watch the portable radio, the strangers stopped the thief 95% of the time! Comparatively, those who engaged the stranger in some unrelated conversation, saw only 20% of thefts being interrupted. That’s a huge effect from just kindly asking your neighbor to watch out for your things. 1 short second to save your portable radio! (well, I think that would be equivalent to your macbook in 2015 terms right?)

Even though I ask my neighbor to watch my things every time I leave the table, I question this experiment for several reasons. This experiment set-up confounds another famous marketing experiment, where people are more likely to allow you to cut the line if you provide them with a reason (any reason) [Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978]. In the blanket study, in addition to asking the stranger to watch the radio and blanket, the confederate also provided a reason “I’m going out for a swim”, which might have exaggerated the percentage of people who would agree to watching things for you. (Do I have to explain that I’m going to the bathroom?) Which leads to another question, is it necessary that the person says yes to your request? Or would they still chase after the thief for you even if they said no?

Before I read about more studies that addresses my coffee shop habits and self-control issues at the dessert shelf (see previously: compromise effect at sbux, and choice overload problem) I would suggest you ask the person next to you to watch your things before leaving the table. It might just save your laptop and backpack while you wait for your latte.

Love,

S (back in asia in t-3 days!)

Sources:

Moriarty, Thomas. “Crime, commitment, and the responsive bystander: Two field experiments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31.2 (1975): 370.

Langer, Ellen J., Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz. “The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of” placebic” information in interpersonal interaction.” Journal of personality and social psychology 36.6 (1978): 635.

Fruit Salad or Chocolate?

We are approaching the end of the year and counting down the days to the holidays! I spent this past week mostly reading academic papers from Psychology and Consumer Research journals on a topic that would be relevant to all of us as we step into the holiday season. This study is widely cited in popular books, such as How We Decide and probably in social psych or marketing course. It is about self-control.

It’s one of the many experiments out there that try to study self-control in a lab setting. Before we begin, I should be cautious and should warn you about the danger of juggling words such as self-control, willpower, cognitive load, processing power around. Though they might sound like the same thing to us (e.g. basically you’re saying I shopped online today and shouldn’t have?), the mechanism underlying each of these words might be very different. In this experiment, researchers Shiv and Fedorikhin called it “Processing Resources”.

Heart and Mind in Conflict

Imagine this: you’re taking a psych course and are required to register for these lab studies in order to get credit for the course. You walk in to the lab and the experimenter tells you a 7-digit number that you have to memorize, a number that you have to repeat to the experimenter in another room. You get a map of where you’re supposed to go. Before you go though, go over to the cart and choose a dessert you want! yum. these studies aren’t so bad, are they? You get to pick between chocolate and fruit salad. After you make your choice, you walk over to the second room according to the map, and then recall the 7-digit number you were asked to memorize. You think you’ll still remember the 7-digits?

You do? Good for you! The bad news is that your memorization skills wasn’t what they’re interested in. Instead, what they wanted to know is whether you picked the chocolate or the fruit salad from the dessert cart. They manipulated something else too; they didn’t give everyone 7 digits to remember, some of your classmates only had to remember 2 digits! In a classic cognitive load manipulation study, remembering 7 digits is called “high load”, while remembering 2 digits is called “low load”. (They can also vary the digit-length, ask you to remember words instead of numbers, do math problems, etc.)

As you can imagine, it wasn’t very difficult to remember these digits so most people recalled them perfectly. However, they did find effects on the dessert choices. Those who had to memorize 7 digits were significantly more likely to choose the chocolate than those who memorized 2 digits only. (This is all assuming that chocolate is less healthy than fruit salad; which could very well be another debate for another time). The researchers claim that those in the 7 digit condition used their limited processing resources to memorize the string of numbers, leaving them with less willpower to resist the chocolate temptation. Those in the 2 digit condition, had more willpower left to make the healthier decision by choosing the fruit salad.

More generally, self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted over time. If you need to do something that requires a lot of self-control, conserve your willpower by focusing on that one task. It’s not likely that you would be memorizing some meaningless 7-digit number in your everyday life, but you might have your mind on the news or a family dispute or what to eat for dinner. Know that these concurrent thoughts will be pulling your processing ability away. This might be something to keep in mind as you go christmas shopping: you’re more likely to impulse buy that thing you shouldn’t buy if your mind is loaded with other busy thoughts!

Happy weekend everybody.

love,
Steph

 

Source: Shiv, B.; Fedorikhin, A. “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 26 (1999). 

HK Sleep and Lifestyle Study

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always surrounded by distractions: activities to go to, friends to meet up with, tutoring sessions to attend etc…I even used to watch TV 😉 HK just always seemed like a busy place, with the MTR (the subway system) bustling, bright and safe, until 2am. It was a paradise for shoppers, eaters, and movie go-ers. Nonetheless, I left HK five years ago for college in the US while some my friends continued with university there. How different were our college lives? Here are some statistics from a survey study that was done at the Polytechnic University in Hung Hom.

 

1) People were asked about their health:

  • 38.3% of males and 25.7% of females take part in leisure time recreational activity such as swimming, dancing, cycling
  • 62.6% males and 55.7% females eat breakfast

Only 60%? This has always confused me. Don’t you get hungry when you wake up? I have to admit I’m an early bird, so I tend to opt for a big breakfast (french toast, eggs benedict style) than a late-night snack. I also guiltily admit that food is probably the first thought that comes to mind after turning off the alarm; no snoozing please, my stomach will say.

 

2) People were asked about their sleep schedules:

  • 73.8% males and 74.3% females don’t get enough sleep!

Granted, these are college students who are nervous about their midterms and problem sets, so the results are predictable. However, from the past few weeks of reading about sleep and happiness research, the one and probably the only one overarching agreement that researchers have is, plainly, you need to sleep. People never adapt to the feeling of tiredness and you can’t even train yourself to get less sleep. So, if you feel like you’re not getting enough sleep, it won’t get any better unless you sleep more!

 

3) There were some encouraging results when people were asked about their interpersonal relationships:

  • 68.2% males and 78.6% females maintain meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others
  • 67.2% males and 73.6% females spend time with close friends
  • 50.5% males and 63.6% females get support from a network of caring people

Friends, family, and loved ones are important people who will support you throughout your life. So, it’s good to know that this Hong Kong survey shows positive results. It is difficult, especially with everyone’s busy schedules, to find the time to build those meaningful relationships, but it is crucial as it gives us meaning in life. Equally as important, we need to know when to reach out to this network of people. The survey also shows that majority of Polytech students get support from their friends and family.

 

Though this study was done in Hong Kong with university students, I suspect that a lot of these results will replicate outside of the university setting and outside of Hong Kong. It also leads me to believe that people’s experiences are not all that different no matter where we are or what we do. So, to all of you, remember to sleep 7-8 hours, eat breakfast, and spend time with those you love and care about!

On the topic of HK, I’ll be home for break in December (Dec 28-Jan 10) so hit me up! Can’t wait to catch up.

Love,
Steph

Why do we Sleep?

We all know that sleeping is important, but the reasons why it is important has been a topic of research for many many years. In fact, it’s also a topic I’m researching into right now, specifically looking at the relationship between Sleep and Happiness.

Here’s a neat poster that compares a well-rested brain to a sleepy brain. The chart covers what happens to your brain cells, consequences on work and driving, and your relationship with others. All important aspects of our lives I would say!

This is a spoiler for next week as I’ll share with you a study about Hong Kong students and their sleep patterns! I’m excited (or not, because I bet it says HK people never sleep…) to read the paper. Stay tuned for this!

sleep

Infographic thanks to: https://www.bollandbranch.com/sleep-and-happiness

Please sleep more!

With Love,
S

I Love Cali (Guest Post)

– By Michael Tu

I hate Chicago! I can’t wait to move back to Cali. I must have heard my Californian friends senselessly bash Chicago at least 100 times the past 6 years here. They claim they would be significantly happier if they escaped Chicago’s frigid hell (paradox?) and returned to their paradisal motherland. I have always found this line of thought to be quite superficial, the outcome of an insufficiently examined life. If the limitless wonders of California do indeed make you much happier, then Californians must be the happiest people on Earth. Sure. I’m skeptical that the weather is a central determinant of life satisfaction. Far more crucial are factors such as whether you are surrounding yourself with people who and engaging in work that bring you meaning. You can achieve this almost regardless of location.

It turns out that this notion of Californian superiority in life satisfaction has also bothered leading behavioral scientists David Schkade of UCSD and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University (who also won a Nobel Prize in Economics). They performed a study called “Does Living in California Make People Happy? A Focusing Illusion in Judgments of Life Satisfaction”. While the title makes the study seem silly at first glance, I assure you that it is a legitimate one that has been cited 627 times. The researchers surveyed ~2000 undergraduates from the University of Michigan (UM), Ohio State University (OSU), the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Irvine (UCI) about their own overall level of life satisfaction and their own level of satisfaction with specific factors such as the regional climate. Moreover, the researchers surveyed the students about what they perceive to be the overall life satisfaction of their similar other (someone else similar to themselves) in the Midwest and in California, and their similar other’s level of satisfaction with specific factors such as the regional climate.

 

The study yielded many interesting results. I will only cover a subset of them:

  1. The students in the Midwest and in California had a similar level of overall life satisfaction.
  2. The Californian students were more satisfied with their own climate than students in the Midwest were satisfied with their own climate.
  3. Both geographical sets of students predicted that their similar other would have a higher level of overall life satisfaction in California than in the Midwest.
    1. The higher life satisfaction prediction for California occurred because the students believed their similar other would be more satisfied with the climate and cultural opportunities in California.
  4. Both geographical sets of students placed higher importance on the climate’s effect on well-being for their similar other living in another region than for themselves.

 

The professors interpreted the results as follows:

  1. The climate is not an important factor when a person assesses her own overall life satisfaction. That person focuses on more central aspects of life in her evaluation.
  2. Objectively speaking, there is a difference in hedonic experience between the climate in California and the Midwest’s climate. A person tends to over-focus on the salient Californian “advantage” of climate when imagining his similar other’s life in another region.
    1. Note: I inserted the apostrophe around ‘advantage.’
  3. Hence, a focusing illusion occurs that causes the person to exaggerate the impact of climate on his similar other’s overall life satisfaction in another region. He fails to realize that his focus shifts to more central aspects of life when evaluating his own overall life satisfaction.

 

To be fair, this study has a limitation. UM, UCLA, UCI, and OSU are mostly comprised of local, regional students, so the surveyed Californians probably have lived in California their entire life, and the surveyed Midwesterners most likely have lived in the Midwest their entire life. At most, you can solidly conclude that lifetime Midwesterners and Californians have similar life satisfaction despite California’s salient “advantages.” You cannot definitely say that a person who moves to the Midwest from California will not have lower life satisfaction, ceteris paribus (excluding the climate and cultural opportunities). Conversely, you cannot definitely say that a person who moves to California from the Midwest will not have higher life satisfaction, ceteris paribus (excluding the climate and cultural opportunities).

Yet, in the face of imperfect information, I strongly believe there is beneficial value in assuming that the authors’ conclusion is a close approximation of the truth:

“In the context of life satisfaction, the present discussion suggests that people may not be good judges of the effect of changing circumstances on their own life satisfaction, or on that of others. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.”

If you are a Californian struggling to adapt to life in Chicago, realize that it is wholly possible to achieve a similar level of life satisfaction here that you enjoyed in California. Instead of focusing your energy on trivial elements of life such as the weather, seek and be present to the crucial and wholesome gifts of life: the people around you who bring you meaning and the work that you find meaningful.

Nudge in Chief: Choice Architecture and Public Policy (Guest Post)

President Obama’s recent executive order encourages federal agencies to utilize behavioral science insights in the development of their policies and program.

Read what my friend, Diana, has to say about it and follow her posts on LinkedIn Pulse!


On September 15, 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order titled,“Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.”  Behavioral science – an amalgamation of behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive science – aims to uncover the intricacies of the human decision making process, and its utility in improving the public sphere has finally been acknowledged at the highest level.

The research findings regarding human behavior have already been applied to a number of areas, most notably marketing and advertising. However, as Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein assert in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” behavioral science can and should be applied to a number of spheres not just to influence, but to improve  the choices that individuals make.

Choices aren’t made in a vacuum. You may think that you are in control of your choices, but a large portion of your response is determined by the environment around you – the choice architecture. Thaler and Sunstein argue that there is a technique to how choices can be presented in order to help people select options that will improve their lives. This technique called “nudging” involves subtly changing the structure of the environment without limiting choice. For example, Google redesigned their cafeteria to make healthy choice more visible, with the result of employees’ fat consumption from candy dropping an impressive 11 percent. In addition, according to Thaler and Sunstein, “for reasons of laziness, fear, and distraction, many people will take whatever option requires the least effort” – meaning the default option. For example, in countries where the organ donation form is set as “opt-out” (check this box if you don’t want to participate), people do not check the box and are automatically enrolled to donate their organs. If the organ donation form is set as “opt-in,” people do not check the box and are automatically not enrolled to donate. In both cases, large proportions of people simply adopt the default option.

This executive order signed by President Obama specifically addresses the concept of choice architecture and highlights the power of the default option, as it pertains to public policy. Executive departments and agencies are mandated to consider how the presentation of choices can promote public welfare, giving particular consideration to the selection of the default option. The goal is to create federal programs that reflect how people engage with and respond to choices. For example, the executive order cites automatic enrollment and automatic escalation in retirement savings plans, default options that have made it easier to save for the future and accumulate billions of dollars in additional retirement savings.

Working in management consulting has solidified my deep appreciation for and trust in evidence-based thinking. Solid data provides me with the foundation upon which I can build sound recommendations for clients. Unfortunately, in my eyes, the political sphere is one where voters make decisions based on emotions and politicians make decisions based on the desire to be re-elected to power. But shouldn’t our leaders adhere to data-driven practices? According to President Obama, the answer is yes. This executive order marks a tremendous step forward towards bringing evidence-based practices into the public sphere.