Thursday, August 23, 2012

Will Your Future Self Be Happy with Your Present Self?

In his wonderful book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes many fascinating experiments that show the fickleness of humans.  If you are one, read on!  Daniel Gilbert is a social psychologist at Harvard and he specializes in studying emotion and pleasure (and, he’s stumbled onto happiness as well.  Link to his site at Harvard.). 

One of the experiments that he loves to talk about was conducted by Ratner, Kahn, and Kahneman, and was published in 1999, with the title “Choosing Less-Preferred Experiences for the Sake of Variety.”  That’s one example Gilbert uses of a series of studies that basically show this fact (using Gilbert’s brilliant way of putting it):  Your present self very often makes decisions that your present self thinks your future self will appreciate that, when the time comes, will not be appreciated by your future self. 

Some of you are already thinking, “tell me about it. I’ve got quite a story for you on this one, buddy!”  Well, my name is Scott, not Stacey or Buddy (Ting Tings time), but yes, I do bet some of you are thinking right now that you have lived this story too well.

Thanks to

Here’s the simple type research finding.  Gilbert has a flair for presenting this type of stuff, so I’ll use his type of example.  You win 12 meals, once a month, at your favorite restaurant in town. The catch is that the restaurant owner asks you to pre-order your 12 meals, so she can feature in you winning this prize in ads and flyers, and show off the wisdom of your selections.  Gilbert focused his example on the entree but allow me to focus on dessert.  It’s a gift. After you have chosen the other aspects of your menu for the coming year, you focus in on the dessert.  This restaurant is eclectic, and they offer a variety.  Among the items offered is some chocolate-lava-cake-thing with the word “decadence” in the name.  Just sayin. They also offer tiramisu, apple crumb cake, blueberry cobbler, cherries jubilee (flame on!), chocolate mousse, and something called “dessert cheeses with fruit.”  Oh, they also have some world famous bread pudding.  You know you love chocolate but you have heard that all the desserts are amazing. Quality will not be the issue.  

What’s the average current self to choose? In a word, he or she tends to choose variety in this context. You can contrive this scenario various ways if you are a social psychologist, but the basic point is that people tend to think their future selves should eat healthier than they actually will want to, and that their future selves will appreciate variety.  In my case, on any given night, among those choices, I’d want the chocolate lava cake. Hands down (on fork and spoon). I’d take that if it were served to me virtually any night of the week, and I’d gain a lot of weight. This is especially true for me if the chef has serious chocolate skills and knows how not to mess up chocolate.  While it mystifies me and my wife, we do know some dessert chefs have an amazing ability to produce brown desserts that have the word “chocolate” in their title that blow the whole chocolate concept.  Really, that’s quite sad.  Every bit of chocolate ever made should have a fulfilled future for it’s own future self—from a little bean to a dessert going into your mouth.

from ReadySetEat

Back to my winning this prize; somehow, in writing down my 12 meals for the ensuing 12 months, I only pick the lava cake 4 times, and, even more remarkably, that cheese and fruit thing shows up in my order 3 times.  Three times! Seriously, Scott? My present self tends to think my future self will be happy to be eating more healthy food from time to time, and at least the fruit part sounds healthy (it’s still all sugar and fat, but let’s move on).  Turns out, every time I come in for my meals in the coming year, and it’s dessert time—EVERY TIME—my future self who shows up wants the chocolate lava cake.  Every meal ends with this depressing sense that “I could have had the lava cake.” I learn that I always have with me, my inner self, who is the same one who most often comes out of Seven Eleven with Hostess Chocolate CupCakes.  (Side point: These are nearly as good as any pastry chef is going to ever come up with. Again, just sayin.) 

The lesson as Gilbert puts it so well is that our present self is always making decisions for our future self—decisions that our future self will have to live with. Worse, our present self is often just so sure what our future self is going to be happy about. This is why Gilbert’s very seriously excellent research in this area is called “affective forecasting.” He studies how good we are at predicting what will make our future self happy. It’s a big deal.   

Let’s imagine some things our present self could get wrong, in writing checks our future self might not be happy to be cashing:

- a major in college

- a career path

- a choice in a partner (for example, being convinced that one always likes being with a thrill-seeker cause it’s been so fun on occasion)

- a tattoo 

I’m not just talking about garden variety regrets and consequences, but I think it’s especially interesting to think about how your future self will like what your present self has chosen for you—and also, how your future self is going to feel about ways in life that your present self is, right now, letting something slide that is going to turn out to life altering experience that carries with it substantial negative feelings. 

Chew on that for a bit and next time, I’ll have more specific thoughts about partner choices.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Who Benefits from Relationship Education? Notes from my Plenary Address at NARME

This is one of those entries that will be of more interest to a specific subgroup of those who follow this blog.  It’s about findings and some controversies in the field of couple relationship education (CRE; also often called marriage and relationship education).  For the rest of you, I promise something fun later next week.

In July, I gave a plenary address at the National Association of Relationship and Marriage Education annual conference in Baltimore.  I had two goals in this talk. 

Goal #1:  My first goal was to present an update of findings from our study of CRE delivered to US Army couples by chaplains.  Some of those findings have already been published but I also presented the findings from the most recent analyses that will go into journal reports we are writing at this time.  My co-investigators in this work are Elizabeth Allen, Howard Markman, & Galena Rhoades, and the study is funded by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). 

Goal #2: My second goal was to address some issues raised in recent discussions about the impact of CRE. I do this by covering some specific findings from three large samples (including the Army study) as well as meta-analyses of an array of studies.  If you are interested in the debates about the government efforts in the past decade that funded some community efforts that used CRE, I cover some of the important issues in my talk.  

I’ll try for something edgy on dating and mating in a week and a half or so!


Friday, August 3, 2012

Buying a Wedding or Buying Into Marriage: The Hokey-Pokey Grail

A colleague of mine noticed this upcoming convention for those in the wedding industry, called WeddingMBA, held in, you might have guessed, Las Vegas.  (Thank you Jennifer A.)  The line up of seminars is pretty interesting to look over.  Many topics are not surprising given that this is the business these folks are in, after all. The seminar line up includes some of these titles that stood out to me as pretty good [the comments in brackets are my editorials]:

- White Hot! - Bridal Trends You Need To Know [Pretty good title, really.]
- The Wedding Revolution - Join One...Start One [Perhaps these folks are onto the decline in marriage.  We could use some type of revolution and it sure would be good for planners’ businesses!]
- Mystique of the High-End Bride - Illusion vs Reality [I wonder if the mystique is that she’ like other brides, only richer.]
- Train Wreck Weddings - What To Do When Everything Goes Wrong [If you think about all the pressure on big weddings these days, I would certainly think that this business could get pretty stressful.]
- Make Her Love You - Creating an Exceptional Experience for Your Bride [Not really a bad concept for those in this business.  It’s what you need to get word of mouth, right?]

My colleague (Jennifer A.) would like to see something different, perhaps entitled more like this: “Help them love each other—through Thick and Thin.” Of course, these are wedding planners and others in the wedding industry, so they can be excused for their focus. But this focus does match our culture: more attention to weddings and divorces but not so much about marriages succeeding. It is rather difficult to make the latter into news, but the former? In just the past year, think of news related to Brad and Angelina planning to get married, or to Kim K. and TomKat. Stability doesn’t really get headlines.

Does buying a huge wedding (with the planner and the whole 9 yards) really make for a stronger marriage? The difficulty comes in with the other 70 or 80 yards.  Ironically, lavish weddings may well help some couples at the margins. This is kind of sad because buying into a huge wedding is not the same as buying into your relationship. I mean deciding that you are all in and that you will invest yourself in this thing of building a life together.

Why might huge, expensive weddings help some couples? Back to my last post from my dissertation. (I know those of you who have not read my dissertation for 25 years or more are enjoying this walk down Nostalgia Lane. What? You have not read it? Oh my.) How does that section relate? Simple. In this day and age, marriage is increasingly something the well-off do and those in poverty or at lower incomes dream about achieving one day. To be sure, most people in most income groups do get married but the trends are rapidly changing to where this is becoming an ever growing part of the economic divide.  (See two posts ago for that!) There is a steady erosion of marriage happening among those without college educations and who have poorer economic opportunities. However, in case you do not realize this, less marriage does not mean less interest in marriage among those who live in poverty.  It’s been well known for a long time that those in poverty have the highest ideals about marriage even if they are less able to realize them.  I gave a keynote address on this very point in 2006, and scholars such as Kathryn Edin, Maria Kefalas, and David Fein wrote powerfully on this in the early 2000s. The data are striking. Difficulty accessing or succeeding at something does not equate to disinterest. Those who I know well, who have been working with lower income groups to help them with their own relationship aspirations, have understood this for a long time.  There are a lot of barriers to marriage and marriages working for those with a lack of resources. But that's for another time.  Back to the main trail for today on expensive, lavish weddings and the whole industry that exists to this end.

In other words, back to the wedding industry and those with the means to party. A decade or two ago, I noticed what seemed a trend toward very expensive, lavish weddings. I cannot prove that this trend actually exists, but it feels right. I do not mean that it’s something right that feels good.  I mean it’s something that makes sense; it can be predicted from good theory and research. It fits the story in our culture of people still wanting marriage but feeling increasingly unsure about it and their own likelihood of succeeding at it. This produces all sort of other behaviors, in addition—behaviors that many people presume gives them a better chance that do not seem to actually help accomplish that goal (like cohabiting before marriage or engagement).

Based on consistency theory and cognitive dissonance, people feel an internal press or force to be consistent with their public pronouncements and prior behavior. While some politicians seem exempt from this internal pressure, research clearly shows this dynamic works within most people. Way too many, but certainly not all, politicians seem to be outliars. (For those of you who love grammar, let’s just say my spelling of that last word was sic.)

Consistency theory is one explanation for what we now see—the apparent trend toward lavish wedding spectacles.  Money, prestige, imagery.  Everything done perfectly and in front of many witnesses. What does a lavish wedding and large party buy a couple? The prediction from decades ago is right in front of us. If you spend that much and make this statement in front of many people, you must really mean it.  Right? You should feel a lot of internal pressure to follow-through.  In a culture where marriage is increasingly something the affluent do relative to other groups, yet something people feel anxious about, this trend toward bigger, larger, and more audacious weddings will continue.  It’s as if people are attempting to buy one more type of insurance for their marriage.  This standard has an unfortunate downside additional to the obvious one of placing more emphasis on the wedding than the relationship. It places bar ever higher for those who feel especially vulnerable about marriage working out—those who have very little resources.

Buying a wedding and buying into one’s marriage are two different things. The former might help some couples a tad but the latter is essential for all couples who are going to make it. For most people (and children), that’s the Hokey-Pokey holy grail.  One needs to put both the right and the left foot in.  Maybe we have to turn ourselves around, because that’s what it’s all about.