Tag Archives: guest post

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.

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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.

Teaching Positive Psych in Italy (Guest Post)

By my friend Simone, owner of blog Simone Vibes. This post is a great application of psychology. I created this blog so that everyone can incorporate psych into their daily lives, so if you have any examples of applying psychology into practice, please feel free to share it with me and write something for my readers!

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I love Positive Psychology, and I have loved it ever since I took its introductory course at Penn in the fall of 2013. Professor Angela Lee Duckworth radiates positivity, and her excellence in the field is palpable. The simplest exercises in making life worth living can bring enormous changes to our daily lives.

During my Fulbright year in Italy, I was invited to teach some guest lectures at local high schools, on a topic of my choice. It was not hard for me to decide on a mini-course introducing the field of Positive Psych, and the success rate, even among unruly Italian teenagers, some struggling to fully grasp the English language, was overwhelming.

In Salerno, Italy, much of the population is struggling with unemployment and dangers from the Mafia. Located just 45 minutes south of Naples, this small coastal city is a hub of mob activity. Many of the kids have hard familiar conditions that they hide with overly confident comments and cool fashion. However, underneath it all, their teachers confided in me that life is not easy. I decided to bring two exercises – ‘Three Good Things’ and the ‘Gratitude Letter’ – to their lives, to see if it had any effect.

At first, many of the students, between the ages of 15-18, were skeptical. Some said it seemed cheesy, others grunted at the task to appear cool. But I had faith. After a brief, but relatively thorough introduction on the origins of and ideas behind Positive Psychology, I let them choose one of the exercises, to be completed at their leisure.

At the end of class, I asked if anyone wanted to read their letter or list out loud. At first timid, some kids eventually raised their hands. Mind you, English is not their native language, so writing these personal things in English class, and thus, obviously in a language they may still feel a bit awkward in, added to the challenge. However, they did a fantastic job, both linguistically and in terms of content.

Those who read out loud had much softer, excited tones in their voices than at the beginning of class. The other classmates listened very attentively. Some nodded. Others looked pensive.

When I asked the young students how the exercise made them feel, the answers ranged from “so happy” to “funny” to “with lots of love”. In their own sweet way, they demonstrated that simple exercises from Positive Psychology can be applied to anyone. With a little faith, they can have an unexpectedly uplifting effect, even on the stubborn and skeptical!

Later that day, I received several Facebook friend requests from the students. Wondering about this, having only spent a couple of hours in each class, I reached out to their permanent teacher to inquire about these requests. She smiled and told me, “They really loved your class. It put them in a good mood. They did not even scramble to leave for lunch!”

This positive effect undoubtedly made it onto my list of three good things that day. Not only that, it was one of the unquestionable highlights of my Fulbright year.

I believe in the power of Positive Psychology across cultures and age groups, across languages and traditions. I am grateful for what I learned and hope to keep sharing it whenever possible.