Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Do Sunny Days Make You Feel Good About Life?

I have a soft spot in my heart for the song “Sunny Side of the Street,” and that song has helped me get through some tough times in my life. The lyric “Life can be so sweet/On the sunny side of the street” captures our general belief that rainy days are sad, while sunny days are happy. 

Clearly, this belief is embedded in our culture.  Not only do we get songs like “Sunny Side of the Street,” but we also have classics like “Rainy Days and Mondays (Always Get Me Down). 

There are a few studies out there that also examine the relationship between weather and measures of well-being (including mood and overall life satisfaction).  An interesting paper in the May, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Richard Lucas and Nicole Lawless points out that there is a lot of inconsistency in the results of studies that have looked at the relationship between mood and well-being.

These researchers analyzed data from over 1 million people who rated their overall life satisfaction on a 4-point scale as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that is run by the US Centers for Disease Control.  This survey included information about where the survey was filled out, and so the responses could be compared against a variety of weather variables for that location.

The researchers examined the relationship between the rating of life satisfaction and temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, barometric pressure, wind speed, and humidity.  The researchers also explored a variety of different aspects of these variables.  For example, with cloud cover, they not only look at the cloud cover that day, but also how that cloud cover deviated from the norm at that time of year as well as the difference between the cloud cover on the day of the survey from the previous day’s cloudiness.  Similar analyses were done for all of the weather variables variables.  The researchers also looked for gender differences.

These analyses allowed the researchers to explore questions like whether people are happier when the weather is much sunnier than normal for that time of year, and whether a sunny day that follows a cloudy day makes people happier. 

What do you think they found?  Take a second and make your predictions.  Which of these aspects of the weather had the biggest effect on people’s judgments of their life satisfaction?

The answer is…none of them.  The fascinating thing about these careful analyses is that no aspects of the weather had any appreciable impact on judgments of life satisfaction.  There were a couple of statistically reliable results reported in the study, but they reflected differences of about 0.02 on the measure of life satisfaction.

So, if the weather does not affect our daily judgments of life satisfaction, why do we think that the weather matters?

There are several factors at work here.

First, looking at the data, there are some broad relationships between life satisfaction and the weather.  Overall, people who live in warmer climates are more satisfied with life than people who live in colder climates.  People who live in sunnier climates are more satisfied with life than those who live in cloudier climates.  So, the overall weather in a region does seem to be related to life satisfaction.  Of course, there are many possible reasons for that.  It is easier to exercise when it is warm and sunny than when it is cold and rainy, so perhaps people who live in warm climates get more physical activity than those who live in cold climates.

Second, we often assume that specific factors will have a greater influence on our overall well-being than they actually do.  Dan Gilbert, Tim Wilson and their colleagues have explored how they would be affected by positive or negative life events.  People assumed that their life satisfaction would be changed for a long period of time by events like getting into a romantic relationship or being denied tenure.  In fact, although those factors did have a short-term influence on people’s well-being, they did not have a long-term influence on judgments of life satisfaction.  That is our overall level of life satisfaction is governed by many factors, and it is hard to predict how any factor will affect us.

Ultimately, we have to realize that the best predictor of how satisfied we are going to be with our lives tomorrow, six months from now, or next year is how satisfied we are with our lives today.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Your Ethical Mindset

People’s ethical behavior is complicated. 

On the one hand, we have situations in which we are strongly consistent.  For example, many vegans I know will not eat any animal products, they will avoid buying products with leather or animal ingredients, and they give time and money to causes to protect animals.

On the other hand, there are times when our ethical actions may balance each other out.  I know people who give money to environmental causes, but then buy gas-guzzling cars that they know are harming the environment.  They recognize the contradiction in behavior, but accept the contradiction. 

An interesting paper by Gert Cornelissen, Michael Bashshur, Julian Rode, and Marc Le Menestrel in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explores the roots of these behaviors. 

As these researchers point out, there are two dominant modes of ethical reasoning.  Consequentialist reasoning focuses on outcomes.  When reasoning consequentially, you focus on whether the end result of an action is one that is acceptable.  Deontological reasoning focuses on principles or rules.  When reasoning deontologically, the key issue is whether a particular ethical principle was enforced. 

Consider the “trolley dilemma,” which has been used in many studies of ethical reasoning.  In this dilemma, a runaway trolley on a track is on a collision course that will kill five people.  You are standing next to a lever that would divert the trolley to another track that would cause only one person to be killed.  Do you pull the lever?  Consequential reasoning suggests that one dead person is better than five dead people, and so you should pull the lever.  Deontological reasoning suggests that killing anyone with an action is a bad thing, and so it is better to let the trolley run its course than to commit an action that would cause someone to die.

The researchers suggest that if you reason about outcomes, then you may be likely to balance outcomes across decisions, but if you reason about moral rules, then you may be likely to maintain consistency across your behavior.

In one study in this paper, participants were induced to think either consequentially or ontologically.  One group was asked to remember an ethical situation in their past.  The consequential group focused on doing something because it benefitted or hurt other people.  The other group was asked to remember an ethical situation in which they followed or failed to follow a principle or norm.

Within each of these groups, some people were asked to focus on a case in which they did something ethical (they helped people or followed a principle).  Others were asked to focus on a case in which they did something unethical (they hurt people or failed to follow a principle).

After recalling a situation, participants played the “dictator game.”  The dictator game emerged from research on behavioral economics.  In this task, two participants are introduced to each other.  Then, one participant is given money (in this case ten coins).  They are told that they can give as many coins as they want to their partner, and that they get to keep the rest.  The more coins they give to their partner, the more fairly they are acting toward someone else.  In this study, participants met their partner, then went into separate rooms where the dictator game was described.  Each participant was told that they were playing the role of the dictator, so data was actually collected from every participant.

When participants were asked to think about ethical situations that were focused on outcomes, they balanced their outcomes.  The people who thought about a situation in which they helped someone gave fewer coins to their partner than the ones who thought about a situation in which they hurt someone else.

When participants thought about ethical situations that were focused on principles, they maintained consistency.  Those who thought about following a principle gave more coins to their partner than those who thought about a situation in which they failed to follow a principle. 

Another study in this series obtained a similar finding, except that participants were given the opportunity to cheat.  Those who thought about consequences were more likely to cheat if they thought about an ethical action they took in the past than if they thought about an unethical action.  Those who thought about principles were more likely to cheat if they thought about an unethical action than if they thought about an ethical one.

You can use these mindsets to help you in ethical situations.  If you find yourself in a dilemma where you are tempted to do something unethical, focus on situations in your past in which you stood up for a principle that was important to you.  This focus will help you to do the ethical thing in the future.