SPEAKER 1: Thank you for joining us this morning. It's my great pleasure to introduce to you Professor Thomas Gilovich, who is the Irene Becker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology. He came to Cornell around 1980-81, something like that, and has been a leader in developing the area of social psychology and behavioral economics. So he's one of the founders of that area, that discipline. And he's co-director of The Behavioral Economics and Decision Research Center at Cornell.
I first became interested in this area of scholarship when I was an undergraduate, because my roommate was interested in the interface between psychology and sociology. I was an environmentalist, and still am, but even then, we knew that people were the problem with the environment. And understanding how we operate and particularly how our minds operate and make decisions would be central in my view to resolving the problems that we're facing.
Professor Gilovich studies how we make judgments in our personal and professional life. He identified sort of the hidden biases that lurk in the recesses of our heads all the time and where they come from and how they affect decision making. He studies the role of such things as egocentrism, optimism, pessimism, belief, and gratitude, which is the topic of today's lecture, in decision making. So how these are identifying us as particular individuals. So Tom's wife described to me, described him to me as a very grateful person.
And we are about to discover why this is a good trait, and how we can be more grateful. Thank you, Tom.
TOM GILOVICH: So this is a talk on gratitude, so of course I have to start with the words, thank you. Thank you for showing up. It's a beautiful day outside, and you all have lots of other things you could be doing. So thanks for coming here and hearing what I have to say.
So I want to talk about what are some of the things that prevent us from being as grateful as we might be. And before I start, you might wonder, well, why do we want more gratitude? Actually, you probably aren't wondering that, because it just seems like a given.
But there are a number of benefits that come with being grateful, a number of benefits to the grateful person. It turns out that grateful people are happier. They have greater psychological well-being, measured a whole bunch of different ways. They sleep better. They have to visit the doctor less often, et cetera, so a lot of direct benefits to the grateful person.
But there are benefits to the people around a grateful person as well. That is, we all use this term of our best self, trying to be my best self. It just turns out we all have an easier time living up to our best self when we're full of gratitude. There are a number of studies that show this, a lot of them down at Northeastern by a social psychologist David DeSteno, who puts people in a state of gratitude.
He does this in a variety of different ways. One way is you're a subject. You show up for an experiment. You've got to fill out a long form on a computer. The computer is programmed to break down.
And the experimenter says, oh, I'm sorry. You're going to have to enter all of that again. But some other subject, who in reality is working for DeSteno comes over, oh, I think I could fix this. Fixes it for you, good, you're good to go.
You're done. You don't have to enter that. So now you are really grateful to this person.
And then right afterwards, he puts them in an economic game. There are a lot of these economic games. The most famous one being the prisoner's dilemma game that you've probably heard of.
This a very simple one where one person is just given a sum of money. It's called the dictator game. And they can dictate how it is split. You can keep all of the money yourself, or you can give some of it to the other person.
And the question is, if you're feeling grateful, are you a more generous person? And the answer is yes. It's not at all surprising that you're going to give more money to this other person that directly benefited you.
But it doesn't have to be that person. If you've just benefited from someone, you're feeling grateful-- even to a stranger, you're more generous. So it's easier to get in touch with your more generous self when you're grateful.
Another way we think about trying to live up to our best self is to be wiser, to not take immediate gratification, to be able to delay things for longer term benefits. He does similar kinds of studies, induces gratitude or another positive emotion, and sees how long people can delay gratification. I don't need to go into, or I don't want to go into that much detail about this particular dependent measure. But those who are grateful find it much easier to, no, I'm not taking $2 today. I'll take $5 a week from now, the ability to delay gratification.
So all of that is just to say that gratitude is a good thing. You probably didn't question that to begin with. But just to reassure you in case you did. That being the case, how can we get more of this productive emotion?
And there's a lot of direct research on gratitude. Before I got into this area of study, people did things like have you write a gratitude diary. Every day you write down something you're grateful for, and it turns out that has lots of benefits.
I wanted to study gratitude from the back door. That is to say, not what are the things that we can promote it, and what they had shown seems effective, but oftentimes you can get some traction by going through the back door and saying, all right, those things might help. But what are the things that are preventing us all experiencing as much gratitude as we might profit from? And maybe we can tear down those barriers and get more of this.
So what are some of the barriers to gratitude? And what I want to do today is just talk about three of them. The first one, the biggest one is adaptation. One of the biggest, most reliable psychological processes that psychologists who study happiness in general have shown is our remarkable capacity to adapt to things.
And when it comes to bad experiences, this is fantastic. People who suffer great tragedies think, oh, this is all over for me. But in fact, we're pretty robust. Over time, we recover.
We often think, oh, if I lost the use of my legs or my arm, life wouldn't be worth living anymore. And for a short period of time, it doesn't seem that way. But if you look at how happy people are who've lost the use of their legs, they're no different than the rest of us. So this capacity is our greatest friend when it comes to negative things.
But it's a big enemy when it comes to positive things. We think, oh, if I just-- if I just get tenure here at Cornell, I won't sweat the small stuff anymore. And you don't sweat the small stuff for a little while. But a year down the road, you're complaining about the small stuff as much as anyone else.
There's a lot of really compelling data on that subject that I could present. But I think it's captured better in popular media. Here's a clip that I think captures it as well as any data.
- I was on an airplane and there was internet, there was high speed internet on the airplane. The newest thing that I know exists. And I'm sitting on the plane. They go open up your laptop. You can go on the internet and it's fast. And I'm watching YouTube clips. And I'm in an airplane. And then it breaks down. And they apologize that the internet's not working. The guy next to me goes, this is [BLEEP].
Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago? And on the plane--
--flying is the worst one. Because people come back from flights and they tell you their story. And it's like a horror story. They act like their flight was like a cattle car in the '40s in Germany. That's how bad they make it sound.
Like it was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn't board for twenty minutes. And then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes. We had to sit there.
Oh, really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake of the miracle of human flight? You're not even contributing zero? You're flying!
That's amazing. Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, oh, yeah! Wow! You're sitting in a chair in the sky.
TOM GILOVICH: It goes on quite a bit. But you get the idea. None of us really think that, wow, we're sitting in a chair in the sky. But we should.
And all of the research on habituation or adaptation has this flavor. That good things happen to us. We really enjoy them, but then we adapt to them.
Things that seem like incredible luxuries today become tomorrow's necessities. And if we don't have them, we're upset, rather than truly enjoying them. So with that powerful machinery we have in our heads to adapt to things, in this case adapting to good things, and interfering with gratitude, how could we combat them?
Well, the esteemed judgment decision-making researcher Robyn Dawes, from Carnegie Mellon, in his book House of Cards invites us to consider a certain thought experiment, really, that may be a key here. He talks about this general tendency, what psychologists call a hedonic treadmill. We aspire to things. We get them, we're happy.
Then we adapt to them. We have to run ever faster to get more and more stuff. And you get your first car, the beat up little Corolla. You're so happy to have that car. Then well, you need a new car. And then the Corolla is not enough.
You step in your friend's Camry. You need a Camry. Then you drive in your friend's Lexus, you need a Lexus, et cetera.
And he talks about a way of living that might resist this idea. So an orientation toward doing the right thing doesn't seem to have that same result. That is to say, if you imagine Mother Teresa, let's say, saving five people this week.
Do you imagine her going, the next week, eh, five people, that's not-- I need to save 10. I need to save 15. It just doesn't seem right. If you're oriented toward doing, having the kinds of experiences where you're doing things for other people, maybe that resists adaptation.
In talking to some of my PhD students, we started to wonder whether that is-- how broadly that applies. Is it really just the experience of doing good for other people, or is it experiences in general? And that led us to do a program of research that can be summarized in a single New Yorker cartoon.
And the reason that's a cartoon, of course, is that we all know no one would say that on their deathbed. Oh, I wish that I had bought-- I'll just say stuff. No one is going to bemoan the stuff that they didn't have. We adapt to the stuff.
But people might bemoan the fact that they didn't have more experiences in life. We only have so much money, and we can spend some of it on material goods. We can spend other on experiences. What are the kinds of things that give us the most enduring satisfaction and enjoyment?
And this is often a very conscious dilemma that people have. They will say to themselves, I want this thing. I want this experience. I know I might really like the experience, but it's going to come and go in a heartbeat. I'll always have this thing.
And although that's true materially, psychologically it's exactly the opposite. That is-- or at least, that's the prediction. You're going to adapt to the thing, whether it's a painting you hang on your wall. You'll enjoy it for a while, and pretty soon you won't even notice it, or new furniture, new clothes, whatever you just-- adaptation is going to take effect there and you're not going to get continued enjoyment.
And even though the experience is something that comes and goes in a flash, the way that you reflect on it can give it more enduring satisfaction. And to see whether that's true, you can just do simple surveys where you ask people, think about the most important, most gratifying experience that you purchased in the last year or last five years, last 10 years. Doesn't matter what interval you ask about. Now think about, or a different set of subjects, you ask them, now think about the most gratifying material good that you bought over the last year, five years, 10 years.
And then you just ask them, how happy does it make you? How much was it money well spent? And as you can see, it's the experiential things that give more enduring satisfaction. And this general result is shown, like it is here, retrospectively, you ask people to think about it.
If you survey people about upcoming material goods-- I'm waiting for the new Camry to arrive-- people are happy about that. Or you're waiting for the trip to New Zealand, they're even happier about that. If you survey them in the moment, you get the same difference in enjoyment. You find it in measures of happiness, satisfaction, and regret.
If you don't ask people explicit questions, you just get them thinking about a past or upcoming experience or material purchase, and then you just assess their moods, you're in a better mood when thinking about an upcoming or previous experience rather than material good. And you find the same result if you take the very same thing, like, let's say a bicycle, that's undeniably a material object. At the same time, it's a vehicle for having experiences. If you get people to think of it in more experiential terms, rather than it's material terms, they're happier with it, the very same object is more enjoyed.
OK, that's about happiness. What about gratitude? Are you really grateful for your material things? Yeah, to some degree.
But there's a tendency for people to be excited. People spend their money reasonably well. People are going to buy things that make them happier. But that's going to be more true for experiences than possessions.
But are you grateful for the material things as much as you're grateful for the experiential things? Well, similar kinds of surveys ask people about the most gratifying material or experiential purchase they made. How grateful are you for it? And again, they're more grateful for their experiential purchases.
If that's true, it should leave some tracks. We shouldn't be able to assess it just in explicit questions that psychologists ask people. People volunteer statements of gratitude in the modern internet world. You go out and have experiences, or you buy things, and you comment on them.
If we look at the comments people leave on experiential websites or material websites, let's just look at what it is that people say. And the prediction is they're going to be more likely to express gratitude here than there. Now let me be very clear.
These comments in either category are not chock full of gratitude. There's a lot of complaining going on. And people talking about excitement and other emotions.
But even though the level isn't high, it should be higher here than there. And that's exactly what you find. When you're writing reviews about vacations, hotels you've stayed in, restaurants you've eaten at, et cetera, you're more likely to feel compelled to say how grateful you are than when you buy these things that make your life better.
I have no idea of what the next slide is going to be. Oh, yeah, so going back, remember that at the very beginning I showed that if you're grateful, it's easier to get in touch with your better self. These DeSteno experiments where, when you're grateful, you give more money to another person. Well, does this function that way?
If we remind you of a great experience you've had, some fabulous meal at a restaurant sometime or a vacation or a concert or we remind you of a material good that you really like. You've selected it as a material good that's gratifying to you, are you nonetheless more grateful for the experience, and therefore more generous to other people? So we have people think about an experiential, a material purchase, or we have them think about something else as a control.
And then we have them do the same dictator game. How much money do you keep for yourself? How much do you give to the other person? And as you can see, relative to controls, when you're thinking about gratifying experiences, you become more generous.
When you think about your material life, you become a little bit less generous. So two things are happening at once. Gratitude is promoting happiness. Our getting in touch with our materialist self makes us a little less generous.
OK. If I said to you beforehand, forget about any psychology. Forget about a talk about gratitude. Do you think people are going to get more enjoyment out of material or experiential things?
You'd probably say, well, I think experiential things. You would anticipate this hypothesis. OK, great, good for you.
Then my question to you would be-- why is that? That's the kind of stuff that psychologists are interested in. If that's true, what is it that is making experiential purchases more enduring in terms of the satisfaction they provide, and what is it that makes us more grateful for those than the material things? Because we get a lot of stuff out of the material purchases we buy. So I want to just quickly talk about the psychology behind this.
And to introduce that psychology we have to consider another bit of popular culture.
- I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leave the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.
- What about us? What about us?
- We'll always have Paris.
TOM GILOVICH: OK, so one of the most signature lines in American film history, "We'll always have Paris." Now what is it about these long ago experiences that make them live on in our minds and give us some oomph many years down the road? That's the key to understanding why experiences are so enduring, even though they do come and go materially in a flash, why they continue to make us happy and make us more grateful.
So continuing with that epic film, one reason is hinted at at one of the most quoted lines from that film. This could be near the end. "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Our experiences connect us to other people more than our material goods do. We're often in our own isolated materialistic bubble. Our possessions separate us from other people. Our experiences connect us to other people. And you can see this in a variety of ways. So imagine that we just found out that we drove up in the same kind of car. We'd feel a little closer to each other. Oh, you have a Subaru, great. We're closer, to a degree.
But imagine we found out that we both vacationed in the same town in the South Island of New Zealand. Oh, and we'd talk more about it. And we'd be more excited. We'd feel closer to each other.
So the idea is experiences advance social connection more and those social connections live on in who you are long after the experience. So if you have people, think about, again, an important material good, an important experience they've had. Imagine someone else has the same thing. How much closer would you feel to that person? How much kinship would you feel toward that person?
And shared experiences bind us to other people more. The mere fact that we share these things-- we feel closer to each other. Now of course, as my example described, we not only would feel closer, we'd talk about it more. And I'm willing to believe that the conversations would be more interesting and gratifying to us if we talked about experiential things than material things.
There's an audience for talking about your new car, your new clothes, your new bookcase or whatever. But the audience has got a limited attention span. They'll give you a little bit of time to talk about it. They'll give you much more time to talk about your experiences.
You can study this in the lab. We did studies where we brought people in who didn't know each other, and they had a get acquainted conversation. But we constrained their conversation. And we said, you need to talk about a gratifying material purchase each of you has made. Talk about that.
Or in a different condition, talk about gratifying experiential purchases you've made. And then afterwards, you pull them apart, and you have them rate how much they like the conversation and how much they like each other. And when you talk about experiential things, you're just having a better time.
You like the conversation more. You like the other person more. So our experiences connect us to other people. That's one reason they're so enduring.
Another reason-- "Here's looking at me"-- your experiences become a bigger part of who you are. Now we all know from early sociology work that we are invested in our material goods. We signal who we are by the clothes we wear, et cetera.
Whoops. OK. So the idea I'm going here is that experiences contribute more to our identity. Not that material goods don't, no less authority than this commercial describes as the most interesting man in the world notes "being boring is a choice. Those mild salsas and pleated khakis don't buy themselves."
You announce who you are by the things that you buy. And that's true for material things. But however connected you are to your material goods, they remain outside you. They are separate from you.
Your experiences aren't. They really are a part of you. We are, arguably, the sum total of our experiences. And so our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves. So of course, they're going to endure along with us.
You can study this in a variety of different ways. One way is we had people-- every subject listed five of their most significant material purchases, five of their most significant experiential purchases. And then we asked them, tell us a narrative about your life. Who are you?
How do we make sense of-- what's the narrative that makes sense of your life? You don't have to include many of these. You have to include at least one. And then some people are going to include several.
And the question is, what do they include? The prediction, of course, is that they're going to include many more of their experiences than their material-- be kind of weird to put material things in as definition of who you are. So as I even describe the study, you know how the results are going to turn out. And in fact, they list twice as many experiential purchases as material purchase. Our experiential things are a bigger part of who we are.
And then finally, the other reason that experiences are more gratifying and more enduringly gratifying is that they tend to be evaluated more on their own terms and less relatively. So if you get a new car that you're excited about, you get the new Camry, oh, it's a great car. It's such an improvement on the old. Someone drives up in a Lexus, and it's the sound of their door closing is just a little tighter and snugger than yours. And you say uh, you're not as happy with your car anymore.
Now that can happen with a vacation, too. You could have gone to New Zealand, and the way you describe it. Go, oh, man your weather was better. It sounds like where you stayed was better. That can diminish my enjoyment a little bit, but not much.
I might swipe my Camry for your Lexus. I'm not going to swipe my trip to New Zealand for yours. I have my memories, my stories, et cetera. I'm not changing those.
So our material purchases are open to being undercut by invidious comparisons that our experiences aren't. Some support for this idea comes from some old economic surveys, where people are asked what world would you rather live in? One where you're a big fish in a small pond. You make 50,000, but everybody else makes 25. You're twice as rich as everyone around you. Or one where you make more money, but other people make more money than you still.
I'm assuming that's a hard question. Because half of them go one way, half of them go the other. Now we don't know what people are thinking of spending their money on, but we live in a very materialist world. So it's a reasonable bet that at least some of them are thinking of buying material things.
And it's kind of a hard question. Is it better to be relatively better off or absolutely better off? I don't know. Well, let's take the material part out of it and make it entirely experiential, not ask about money that they might spend on material things.
Let's just ask them about time that they can devote to leisure. What world would you rather live in-- one where you have two weeks of vacation and others have one, or one where you have four weeks and other people have eight? This hard question over here becomes an easy question over here.
Just give me the extra time. I don't care that other people have more time than I do. I don't care about how I stack up to others when it comes to experiential things.
To study this in the lab, we did a study here where we had people come in, fill out a survey that we weren't actually interested in. The only reason we had them do that is so that we could give them a reward for doing it. And some people got an experiential reward-- a bag of chips, we have a limited budget-- or a material gift, a Cornell pen. They write with the pen, and afterwards, we ask them how much they like it. They have the bag of chips. Afterwards we ask them how much they like it.
They do this, either by itself, they're eating the chips. That's all they know about. They're drawing with the pen. That's all they know about.
Or in the context of they're sitting down there, we give them a bag of chips, and all around them are a bunch of chocolate bars. We don't say anything about the chocolate bars, but Cornell students like chocolate more than chips. And so we're assuming a lot of them are thinking to themselves, wait a minute, what are these chocolate bars doing here? Did other people get chocolate? I didn't get-- why didn't I get chocolate?
Or in the material condition, when they're drawing with the pen, there are a bunch of Cornell mugs lying around that are more expensive than their pen. And then are they thinking, wait, why did other people get mugs rather than the pen that I got? The prediction is that enjoying the material thing in the context of better material things is going to reduce your enjoyment. This thing, you're going to maybe have the same thoughts. Why did other people get chocolate?
But you put the chip on your tongue. Evolution has wired us so that salt and fat of the chip, mm, this tastes pretty good. And all of a sudden, you've forgotten about the chocolate and you love the chips.
And as you can see, that's exactly what happens. In the control, when they eat them or consume them by themselves, they like the pen every bit as much as they like the chips. And when they eat the chips in the presence of chocolate, it doesn't really interfere with it. But when they consume their pen in the presence of better material things, the pen just isn't as good.
So this idea-- so those are the three reasons why experiences provide more enduring enjoyment and why we are grateful for them for a longer period of time. This idea is now out in the culture. You see this a lot, the highlighting of experiences, maybe a lot of evidence that it's even affecting the economy. The obvious suggestion from this research as individuals is that-- not that we should get rid of all our material stuff, but just shift our expenditures a little bit in the experiential realm, a little less material stuff, a little more experiential stuff. We'll all be individually happier.
A point I want to make is, if that's true individually, it's true for all of us collectively. That is to say, just like there's lots of talk how we've under-invested in our transportation, our infrastructure over a variety of ways, well, there's an experiential infrastructure that we haven't invested in perhaps as well as we should. What's often called America's best idea, its national park system-- it's still a great national park system. But it's not in the shape it was when I was hiking all the time in Yosemite as a kid.
You go there. They still do a great job of running it. But it's getting run down. We're not investing in it.
And you can't have the kinds of gratifying experiences I've talked about, can't go biking if there aren't bike trails, hiking if there aren't hiking trails. Can't enjoy the beach if the beaches are polluted, et cetera. So just as individually we might think of tilting our expenditures in one direction, collectively we may want to pay attention to our experiential infrastructure. OK, so that's one enemy of happiness, which is habituation or adaptation. One way to combat it is through experiential pursuits rather than material pursuits.
The second thing I want to talk about-- I'm going to set myself a difficult challenge here. I want to convince you at the start of this one that you are more like Donald Trump than you think.
[LAUGHTER] So why do I say that?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] we know that.
DONALD TRUMP: There's nothing easy for me. You know, I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan for $1 million. I came here to Manhattan, and I paid it back. And I had to pay him back with interest.
TOM GILOVICH: OK, now I suspect that no one here would think of a small loan of a million dollars as some great hardship that had to be overcome. So maybe you're not fully like Trump. But there's a lot of ways in what I think is being revealed there that affects all of us.
And one way to think about this is to think about the times when you were cycling or running for exercise. Anyone who cycles or runs for exercise, when you're cycling into the wind or running into the wind, you're aware of it the whole time. It's literally in your face. You often say, oh, I can't wait till this turns around. You do turn around, and you're grateful.
This feels great for about a second. You're like the person in Louis CK video. And then it's just pushing you along. There's no reason to pay attention to it, so you don't.
You have to pay attention to the headwind, because it is in your face. And what's true about headwinds and tailwinds, literally, is true metaphorically throughout all of our lives. That is, those challenges that we face, the barriers in our path, we have to pay attention to them, because we have to overcome them. Those things that are pushing us along, we don't have to pay attention to them, so we tend not to do so.
You can get some, I think, it's a stretch to call it evidence, but some insight into this idea if you just go to Google and type in headwinds. You'll get actual photographic evidence of headwinds. You can see the headwind there. It's salient.
And so what's happening, I'm going to claim psychologically, is easy to tap into. Interestingly, if you type in tailwind, you don't see any pictures. It has to be represented schematically. And what's true photographically here, I want to argue is true psychologically.
This stuff is just so easy to encounter. It registers with us, because again, we have to pay attention to the barriers that are ahead of us. The things that are boosting us along, we don't have to. If this is true, we should see evidence, not just in the likes of Donald Trump, but everywhere.
And so very quickly I'm going to show you some of that evidence. You see it growing up. Some of you had siblings. Who had it harder? Who did your parents hold to a higher standard, you or your sibling?
In this crowd, there are a number of people probably old enough to-- oh--
TOM GILOVICH: An entire comedy routine based around that one line, mom always liked you best. Do kids tend to think that? Do they tend to think that they were picked on by their parents more than their siblings?
Well, you can ask kids that. We did surveys of kids who had one sibling and asked them who's punished more often. Now there is a general theory that the oldest kid is held to a stricter standard. And both kids are likely to recognize that and honor that.
But nonetheless, is the older kid particularly likely to believe that? So these represent the mean responses, with the thicker bar representing the mean of the older kids. So the older kids both recognize the older kid was punished more often, but the older kid thinks that more than their younger sibling, who was lectured at more often. Again, the older kid thinks that was particularly true of them. Who was held to a high standard-- again, older and younger seeing it differently.
Flipping it, who did they go easier on? The older sibling thinks they were easier on the younger sibling. Who do they encourage more, et cetera. So we see it growing up.
We each think that our siblings had it easier than we did. Because we had to focus on the times, our difficult times. We didn't have to focus on our easy times.
In the sports world-- nowadays sports is such a big business that the schedule has been expanded. And it's not the case, unlike the Ivy League, where every Ivy League team plays every other Ivy League team, the schedules aren't fair. Some teams play some teams. Some teams play others.
And when do you know that? When you see the schedule announced, do you have a tendency to say, oh, this is great? We're going to have an easy time this year.
That just doesn't seem right to any sports fan I know. That is, you look at it, and you go, oh, my god. This schedule is going to be really difficult. That the barriers are the things that the mind has to go to because those are the things that have to be overcome.
So if you go to things like Reddit, an online posting of commentary, the day after the NFL announces its schedule-- and the NFL has a particularly imbalanced schedule because there's only 16 games, and the games that my team might have to play would be very different from the games that your team might have to play-- what are fans saying the day that it's announced? Are they saying these kinds of things, like great! We've got an easy schedule ahead. Or nope, that's going to be brutal, or just gulp?
We had people-- we scraped commentaries from Reddit, had people score them for whether they're celebrating their good fortune or bemoaning their bad fortune. And wildly, disproportionately, they're bemoaning their bad fortune. So we see it growing up. We see it in the sports world.
What about in the political world? In the United States, we have this funny thing known as the Electoral College. Does the Electoral College make it easy for your candidate, or does it tend to make it easy for the other candidate?
Well, so we can ask people that, or we can look at commentary. Again, this time from Mr. Trump, arguing that it's almost impossible for a Republican to win, given how hard the Electoral College makes it for Republicans. Never mind that in two recent elections, Republicans won the electoral college while losing the popular vote. It nonetheless seems that way to him. But of course, we don't want to use Trump as data.
But you can survey respondents. Ask them what about the geopolitical landscape? Does it tend to favor your side or the other? The Republicans, here on red, on average think that it favors Democratic candidates. The Democratic respondents think that it favors Republican candidates, and the unaligned voters are ones who think it favors neither one or the other.
And I think, interestingly, this effect is stronger for the more you pay attention to politics. The more you pay attention to the difficulties or the things that stand out from your experience, not the easy things. And so it seems biased against you. OK, so we see it growing up. We see it in the sports world. We see it in the political world.
You could-- and I'm arguing this is almost a perceptual kind of result, that the world presents evidence of all your hardships, again, because you have to pay attention to them. You might object, like, you know, I don't-- I don't really know that that's really an ingrained thing. This may be people just claiming this. Does Trump really believe what he said or is that just a good argument?
Maybe people are self-handicapping. They're claiming that their older siblings had it harder, so that maybe they can get more stuff. Perfectly legitimate concern that might have contributed to the data I just presented.
But I don't think that's the whole story. And I'm going to present a thought experiment to convince you that that's not the whole story. And then I'll present some actual data.
The thought experiment comes from the world of Scrabble. How many people play Scrabble? When you think back on your Scrabble career, have you tended to get better letters than your opponents or worse letters than your opponents?
I don't know any Scrabble players who will say that, oh, yeah, I'm just lucky. I get good letters more often than my partner. People tend to think that they've gotten bad letters. And why is that? Well, again, the headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry.
If you get letters like that, you're going to have to sit with them for a long time. You can't get rid of five Is in one turn. So they're going to be with you turn after turn after turn. And so your experience is, boy, this is really hard.
If you get great letters on the other hand, you just play them, boom, get a lot of points, and you move on. So you've spent more time with your bad letters than your good letters. And it's very difficult to keep straight time spent with bad letters and number of bad letters that I've got.
One study that I want to do-- I haven't been able to do this yet. I'm convinced this would work. I want to station people at the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail in Mt. Whitney and the northern terminus in Yosemite. And ask them, OK, you just hiked the 211 miles of the John Muir Trail. What proportion of it was uphill? What proportion of it was downhill?
And doesn't matter what direction you went, I think people are going to say it was a majority uphill because going uphill is harder. And they will have spent more time going uphill. That's not the question they're asked. But it's how much uphill was it? And that's just very difficult to keep straight. And so the world is going to seem objectively this way, even if it isn't. OK, that's an anecdote.
What about actual data? If it's more than self-handicapping, it should have consequences that are different than self-handicapping. And to explore that, we looked at a manifestation of this idea, this headwind-tailwind asymmetry among academics.
I don't know what departments you are all from, but in my department, each area tended to think that the other areas had it easier. And that's particularly true of graduate students. Our graduate students in social psychology-- oh, the developmentalists, they have it easy. They run these studies with like, six kids in each condition.
The developmental test would say, do you know how hard it is to run a baby in an experiment? It's so much harder than the college students you guys have roaming around. Each side thinks it's harder on the other. So I didn't think we could ask psychologists, because they try to see through and anticipate the hypothesis of any study.
So we went to the American Accounting Association. And accountants, like a lot of academic disciplines, can be divided into experimental and non-experimental accountants. And then we just asked them, who has it easier when it comes to getting things published, getting grants funded, getting tenure-- experimentalists or non-experimentalists?
And so the experimentalists think, more than the non-experimentalists, that the experimentalists have it harder. That's just marginally significant here, in terms of who has an easier time getting their work published, who has an easier time landing a job, who has an easier time getting tenure, getting their grants funded, et cetera. So if you are in that world, if you're prone to this headwind-tailwind asymmetry, and it really feels like the objective truth is such that things are biased against you, it's hard not to feel that things aren't unfair.
Not only are you not going to be grateful, you might even be resentful. Nothing consumes a person more than a sense of resentment. And if we find it easier to get in touch with our best self when we're grateful, we find it easier to get in touch with our worst self when we're resentful.
So to find out whether that's the case, right after we gave these experimental and non-experimental economists this survey, to get on the top of their heads the notion that-- I think things are biased against me-- we gave them another survey where we asked them about questionable research practices. Not outrageous things, but things that are unethical, but maybe marginally so. So is it OK to be included as a co-author on a paper when you really didn't do anything? No, it's not OK. But you know, if someone did that, it's not horrible.
Can you accept research funds from an ethically questionable corporation as long as your research is aboveboard? Can you make that ethical compromise or not? Can you allow your dislike for a colleague to influence review of that person's work?
So we asked people this. And the question is, because you've gotten in touch with how it seems biased against you, are you more likely to say, yeah, these things are OK. And the answer is yes. That is to say, the more you think that-- if you're an experimentalist-- the more you think that experimentalists had it harder, the more likely you are to say, yeah, it's OK to do these things.
If you're a non-experimentalist, and the more you think non-experimentalists had it harder, the more you think, yeah, it's OK to do these kinds of things. So this headwind-tailwind asymmetry not only is a barrier to gratitude, it feeds as one of gratitude's opposites. Gratitude interestingly has two opposites-- gratitude and entitlement, gratitude and resentment. It feeds a sense of resentment that makes it harder to get in touch with our best selves.
Yeah, I think, now I'm just going to speculate. So there's some evidence. Where else do we see this headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry? I think I have time for a little speculation here.
Interestingly, there was this survey done in the late stages of the last election where they were asking people about the eight years of the Obama administration. Some people were asked, what about education in the United States? What about crime? What about the economy, et cetera.
How is your life now, in this area, compared to what it was like in 2008? And in every area, people said, oh, things have gotten better. And then another set of respondents were asked, overall how is your life today compared to how it was in 2008?
Oh, it was worse. Now how can those two things be? That if, again, there are certain areas where for certain people it was worse, if that's the thing that stands out, that's going to dominate your judgment of the general answer. And each of us is picking different areas where things have gotten worse, and not paying as much attention to the ways in which things have gotten better. So you get one answer on the general question, a very different answer on all the particulars.
As you may remember, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and American, but other countries as well, economists were asked-- what do we do about this situation? What advice do we give Russia in terms of how it should run its nation? In particular, how it should run its economy?
And the idea was, oh, shock therapy is the right way to go-- that install a real hard-edged capitalist economy. Well that didn't work out so well. And one way, arguably, and again, I'm speculating here-- is it's a failure to appreciate the headwinds that we have here that make this economy work here, all the things that boost it along. If you just sort of shove it in over there without an appreciation of all the nuances that make a free market economy work, you're going to get the disaster that we had there.
Exact same thing happened in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, the idea partly motivated by trying to create a so-called model democracy in the Middle East. Again, it's a failure to appreciate the headwinds about our particular circumstances that allowed that to flourish here from the beginning and continue to now. The notion that you can just take what works for us, put it in there with no history of democratic institutions. Again, a lot of reasons for that-- one of them is a failure to recognize the headwinds that we enjoy here.
And then, the recent election arguably reflects this. The notion that, oh, I just want to shake things up. Well, that's great. And that would be-- if you lived in Zimbabwe, maybe shaking things up would be good. And just randomly shaking them up would move us closer to the mean. But if you live in the strongest economy in the world, and you just shake things up, what are the chances it's going to make them better rather than worse?
Or the statement you see in a lot of right wing media, that there's a war on white Christian men. Yeah, the status of white Christian men has been reduced. The huge advantage that they've enjoyed for hundreds of years has been diminished a little bit. Is that going to-- is that really a war? Again, how much reflects something about how much we don't appreciate the tailwinds that we enjoy.
Oh, does this mean that we never pay attention to our headwinds-- excuse me, our tailwinds? No, there are some things that people do note. And interestingly, they are rather different than their headwinds.
If you ask people about-- you explain the headwinds-tailwinds idea. What are the biggest headwinds you've had to face in your life? They're all over the map. Institutional things that have prevented them, other people have gotten in the way, the chance didn't just break right, et cetera.
If you ask them about their tailwinds, overwhelmingly, they're about other people. That someone stepped into my life and changed me in certain ways that I'm forever grateful for. I think that's interesting, that it's the other people part are the tailwinds that we appreciate.
Also they have a different flavor. The headwinds that you think of are things that you're on a certain path and they're arresting your progress on that path. The tailwinds are often a little bit different. It's-- I was on this path. I ran into someone who convinced me I should be on some other path, and boy, am I grateful that I moved paths as a result of that. And we're continuing to explore what are the differences between the headwinds that stick in your mind and the tail winds that stick in your mind.
OK, finally, third barrier to being more grateful is that when we all face a particular burden that we should recognize, oh, this is just part of life. Everyone has to suffer from this. It's very hard not to think we suffered from it more.
We're kind of egocentric. We can feel the ways it's hurting us. We have some abstract sense of how it's hurting other people. And that's an unfair contest, and therefore, we're going to think it's hurting us a lot more.
Here's our president again. Oh. Uh, yes.
DONALD TRUMP: Look at the way I've been treated lately. Especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.
TOM GILOVICH: OK, so you've got it here. The president of the United States has a tough job. You've got a media doing its job. Its whole purpose is to make your life difficult.
And I'm sure this is an extreme-- Trump is an extreme example in so many different ways. But presidents, in general, probably feel that they've been treated, maybe not the worst in history, but worse than average. There are a lot of studies that show this.
Whenever we give everybody the same benefit, it seems like it benefits me more than everybody else. We give everyone the same deficit, it seems like it hurts them more. There are a lot of demonstrations of this. So you have students come in, and they're going to compete against one another on a trivia contest.
And you tell them that the category's a hard category, 18th century Baroque music. They go, oh, my god. I don't know anything about that. I think my odds are really low that I'm going to win this.
Well, if it's hard for you, it's probably hard for the other randomly selected Cornellian, as well, and it really doesn't affect your odds. Or we make it kind of easy, situation comedies. Oh, great-- Cornell students know a lot about those. And they're optimistic-- they bet more on themselves.
Or an even better example-- one of Dennis and my former students, Justin Krueger, did a study where he had people play poker in the lab. And on some hands, there were wild cards. With wild cards, the game is easier. That is, not winning, but getting good hands is easier, and other rounds, there aren't.
OK, everyone feels like I can get better hands with my wild card. Fine, but so can the other people. Paradoxically, people bet more when there are wild cards in there, even though they're not any more likely to win. So this shared benefit wild card feels like it's benefiting you more than it benefits other people. When it comes to barriers that we all face, they nonetheless can seem like they're hurting us more than they hurt other people.
And so some studies show this. Imagine your state raises its sales tax by two percentage points. So everybody's income takes a hit. Most people think it's going to affect them, would hurt my financial situation more than others-- people at my income level.
Obviously, it could affect people at different income levels more. But you can think how that 2% decline would affect you, and you have some abstract notion of how it'd affect other people. And again, that's an unequal contest. And most people think it's going to interfere with them.
Or you have a new tax on internet charges, people think that's going to hurt them more than it hurts other people. So another way in which-- another barrier to gratitude is-- all the shared adversities we have don't seem fully shared. And it seems like the [INAUDIBLE] is targeting us.
OK, it would be really weird if I spent an hour of your time talking about gratitude and didn't show the standard academic gratitude slide of the students who actually did all the hard work and funding sources that supported it, so my thanks to them. And I also want to thank my longtime friend, Dennis Regan, who was in my lab meetings for a couple of decades and made great contributions to the research. So thank you, Dennis. Thank all of you again for [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 1: Well, we have time for a few questions. And this was provocative enough that I think we should allow some--
AUDIENCE: OK, I have a brother. I always love these things where you do two siblings, because I've got six siblings. There's never any examination of that. But anyway, he's done very well financially and he owns like 12 cars. And he has a garage big enough for them, and lifts, and all this other stuff.
And he's somewhat materialistic, but my sense is having-- he has a whole bunch of friends who have cars. And they have car dinners. That, in some ways, they've turned their material things into experiential. And maybe it's the experiential of sharing all of this with other people, and that's a real important part of his life. Do those things get mixed together like that sometimes?
TOM GILOVICH: I think so. And I wanted to do a study on exactly that. And I had a graduate student who I thought would have been exactly perfect for this, but she wanted to do something else.
AUDIENCE: Well, there's this car club in Northern Virginia. Let me tell you where they are!
TOM GILOVICH: It's a great question. And there are different variants of it. There's a variant of that question that we want to set aside, like people will say psychology, you know, there are scales. You measure different personalities. And one is the material value scale.
If you're very materialistically oriented, would they be exceptions to this? And the answer is no. That is, there's less of this effect.
There's less of a benefit to experiences for materially oriented people. But they show it, still. That's one general variant of this.
Yours is a more specific version that I think is right, but I don't have the data on it. And you could call it, sort of, the psychology of the connoisseur. Your brother is a connoisseur of cars. And that doesn't mean that he's going to get more enjoyment out of material things, in general.
It's that for that thing he's connected to other people who are connoisseurs of cars, a big part of his identity is that. He has knowledge. He reads about cars, and so on. And that becomes a bigger part of himself.
So I do think that's the case. The version of that question that I often have gotten in talks on this, it's usually by a woman who says something like, well, what about boots? And what they mean is, they like collecting shoes. And they know a lot about shoes. They know other people who do it and it's the same thing with cars. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: So in the first part of your talk, you were talking about the feelings and they're associated with material possessions and experiences. And it's all about positive feelings. Is it symmetrical if you've had bad experiences? Does that generate negative feelings? And if you share negative experiences with other people, does it work the same way, or is it all--
TOM GILOVICH: No, sharing negative experiences with people binds you with those people. I mean, you know, the survey data of people in the military is a perfect example of that. Even though at the time, it could be horrendous in lots of ways, people talk about that as being the best years of their lives often.
When it comes to negative experiences, we can romanticize them in a way that we can't-- if you have a car that's breaking down, it's not a charming broken down car. But we've all had the experience of the camping trip from hell, or the vacation from hell that was terrible-- you forgot this, or we got robbed here.
AUDIENCE: Bad flights.
TOM GILOVICH: We had a bad flight. But then we start to think of it as the hilarious camping trip. Well, it wasn't hilarious at the time. But you remember it.
Oh, in fact, there's this study-- I love this study-- of people's enjoyment of Disneyland. They survey people before they're going to Disneyland. What do you think about it? Oh, it's going to be great, a lot of family bonding time, the rides will be great, et cetera.
They interview them at Disney World. Oh, these lines are terrible. Everyone's bickering over what rides to do, and so on. And then, most tellingly, you ask them two weeks later. How was Disneyland?
Oh, it was great, family bonding, and so on. And that's easier to do, to distort-- I don't want to say distort-- I mean, well, at some level, it is a distortion. At some level, it isn't. That is you're carrying away the connections to other people in these different, difficult circumstances that is real. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Are there gender differences in this?
TOM GILOVICH: No, there really-- we did a study where, like that first one, this was within subjects. So we asked you what's your most gratifying experience? What's your most gratifying material purchase you've made in the last five years? And which one do you enjoy more?
And you look at every conceivable category-- men, women, old, young, educated, not-- the only-- it never flips. The only place where it disappears is among the really poor. So this is really about disposable income. And if you're really poor, there is no disposable income. But no, it exists across every conceivable category. Yes?
AUDIENCE: So when I grew up in England, we had the concept of the idle rich, and it was sort of a sense of enough. And so my question is is the US very unusual, that I don't know that the idle rich is a sort of objective, what you would want to be here. There's sort of you can't have too much money on Wall Street.
TOM GILOVICH: Yeah, well, our colleague Bob Frank has a lot to say about that very subject. That we're oriented to look at the people just above us. And because they're just above us, we get dissatisfied with what we have. And so I would turn your question around.
He's convinced me, at least, that the things that he has been studying, seeing really, a part of how the mind works. And so the question becomes, why was it different in England in that particular time? Why was that switch turned off, or turned down at least?
I don't know the answer to that. But that's how I would phrase that question. Well, again, thank you very much.
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When people feel grateful, they are not only happier, they find it easier to get in touch with their "best self"—more generous, more disciplined, more virtuous. Given all of these benefits, why is it so easy for people to lose sight of all there is to be grateful for? In this talk given May 18, 2017, Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich discusses several "enemies" of gratitude, the psychological processes that underlie them, and how they might be combatted—making it easier for people to feel grateful and live up to their best selves.