Selected chapters, articles, and other published papers in behavioral science relating to purpose.
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Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation
Many important learning tasks feel uninteresting and tedious to learners. This research proposed that promoting a prosocial, self-transcendent purpose could improve academic self-regulation on such tasks. This proposal was supported in 4 studies with over 2,000 adolescents and young adults.
Yeager, D. S., Henderson M. D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., D'Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559-580. doi: 10.1037/a0037637
Hedonomics: Bridging Decision Research with Happiness Research
One way to increase happiness is to increase the objective levels of external outcomes; another is to improve the presentation and choices among external outcomes without increasing their objective levels. Economists focus on the first method. We advocate the second, which we call hedonomics. Hedonomics studies (a) relationships between presentations (how a given set of outcomes are arranged among themselves or relative to other outcomes) and happiness and (b) relationships between choice (which option among alternative options one chooses) and happiness.
Hsee, C. K., Hastie, R., & Chen, J. (2008). Hedonomics: Bridging decision research with happiness research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(3), 224–243. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00076.x
Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness
There are many apparent reasons why people engage in activity, such as to earn money, to become famous, or to advance science. In this report, however, we suggest a potentially deeper reason: People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be busy. Accordingly, we show in two experiments that without a justification, people choose to be idle; that even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy; and that people who are busy are happier than people who are idle. Curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy. Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.
Hsee, C. K., Yang, A. X., & Wang, L. (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science, 21(7), 926–30. doi:10.1177/0956797610374738
Mere Exposure to Money Increases Endorsement of Free-Market Systems and Social Inequality
The present research tested whether incidental exposure to money affects people's endorsement of social systems that legitimize social inequality. We found that subtle reminders of the concept of money, relative to nonmoney concepts, led participants to endorse more strongly the existing social system in the United States in general (Experiment 1) and free-market capitalism in particular (Experiment 4), to assert more strongly that victims deserve their fate (Experiment 2), and to believe more strongly that socially advantaged groups should dominate socially disadvantaged groups (Experiment 3). We further found that reminders of money increased preference for a free-market system of organ transplants that benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor even though this was not the prevailing system (Experiment 5) and that this effect was moderated by participants' nationality. These results demonstrate how merely thinking about money can influence beliefs about the social order and the extent to which people deserve their station in life.
Caruso, E. M., Vohs, K. D., Baxter, B., & Waytz, A. (in press). Mere exposure to money increases endorsement of free-market systems and social inequality. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. doi:10.1037/a0029288
Goals as Reference Points
We argue that goals serve as reference points and alter outcomes in a manner consistent with the value function of Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1992). We present new evidence that goals inherit the properties of the value function—not only a reference point, but also loss aversion and diminishing sensitivity. We also use the value function to explain previous empirical results in the goal literature on affect, effort, persistence, and performance.
Heath, C., Larrick, R. P., & Wu, G. (1999). Goals as reference points. Cognitive Psychology, 38(1), 79–109. doi:10.1006/cogp.1998.0708
Good Intentions, Optimistic Self-Predictions, and Missed Opportunities
Self-predictions are highly sensitive to current intentions but often largely insensitive to factors influencing the readiness with which those intentions are translated into future behavior. When such factors are under a person’s control, they could be used to increase the probability that desired future behavior will be undertaken, but they will be underused if self-predictions underestimate their impact. This hypothesis was borne out in two experiments involving working students attempting to achieve a savings goal: They strongly intended to save, made overly optimistic self-predictions even when it was costly to do so, and were willing to pay very little for a service that could help them save more because they did not anticipate its impact on their future behavior. By contrast, students who were informed of the service’s actual impact were willing to pay more for it, and students did not underestimate the impact of the service on fellow students.
Koehler, D. J., White, R. J., & John, L. K. (2010). Good intentions, optimistic self-predictions, and missed opportunities. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(1), 90–96. doi:10.1177/1948550610375722
The Dynamics of Self-Regulation
Research on the dynamics of self-regulation addresses situations in which people select goal-directed actions with respect to other existing or still missing actions towards accomplishing that goal. In such situations people can follow two possible patterns: they can highlight a goal by attending to it more if they have attended to it, or they can balance their goals by attending to a goal more if they have not attended to it. The choice of which pattern to follow depends on the representation of goal actions: when actions signal commitment, people highlight, and when actions signal progress, people balance. We identify several variables that determine whether people follow a dynamic of commitment-induced highlighting or progress-induced balancing. We then discuss the implications of this model for seeking, giving, and responding to feedback.
Fishbach, A. Zhang, Y., & Koo, M. (2009). The dynamics of self-regulation. European Review of Social Psychology, 20, 315-344.
Identifying and Battling Temptation
Despite knowing well that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” people still want many conflicting things at once. That is, people want to fulfill short-term desires and they want to do so without obstructing their long-term interests. Thus, weight watchers wish to eat many delicious cakes and they also wish not to look like they have eaten many delicious cakes. Similarly, professionals wish for early leave on Friday afternoon, and they also wish for early promotions at year-end reviews. And feuding partners want to maintain their innocence in every battle, and they also want to maintain their relationship through every battle. In a world where people want to have it both ways – to enjoy the moment and to prosper in the long run – how do they protect long-term interests from the allure of short-term desires?
Fishbach, A., & Converse, B. A. (2010). Identifying and battling temptation. In K. D. Vohs & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: research, theory and applications (2nd ed., pp. 244–260). New York: Guilford.