Dan Ariely’s Research is More Important Than Your Major

Just some insightful and relevant research conducted at Duke

True Blue | Brett Finkelstein | January 27, 2016

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Social and behavioral psychology is extremely interesting and relevant information for any student on Duke’s campus, and I’m not just talking about the Psych 101 course offered every semester for students trying to take a survey course in the study while also getting an easy A. When it comes to the way we, as people, think and operate you’d have to be lying to say it didn’t interest you at all. Duke professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, Dan Ariely, explores these concepts in new ways right on our campus. And to be honest, this innovative research is way better than your major or your other elective classes you’re taking this semester. His research is all about our expectations versus our reality.

The New Year just happened, bringing about the scary realization that another year has passed us by, not to mention the massive build-up for the countdown of the 3-2-1- disappointment. Really, it’s no secret that the anti-climactic event we literally spend all year waiting for won’t live up to expectations. But, it may be more than just the countdown to nothingness that makes us feel this way.

In exploring that overwhelmingly shared sense of how NYE is just a pointless holiday that really only benefits Party City sales, Ariely, along with Schooler and Lowenstein, previously conducted research to find out that reporting and monitoring one’s own happiness can actually result in lower levels of happiness. In this specific study, participants listening to Stravinsky’s song, “The Rite of Spring” were asked to report their happiness levels throughout or just once at the end of the song to arrive at this conclusion. When study participants were asked to repeatedly and progressively report their feelings in this way, they ended up experiencing lower feelings of happiness as compared to when participants were simply asked to generalize their feelings at the end. Normally, this song is expected to make people feel pretty positive. What did they find out instead? Trying to be happy, with expectations of this song making you feel happy, makes you less happy.

For the participants who commonly think of this as a song that makes them happy, the reporting of these feelings obviously surprised them. But, of course, these feelings don’t just apply to a song you jam out to in your car driving from Perkins back to your apartment late at night. There’s an overall complication in any and all times when we try really hard to be happy or have other positive feelings and expectation builds up, but we end up disappointed in the end instead.

Now let’s bring it back to New Years, where everyone tries to bring in the new year on a high note, and are therefore basically asking for a side of disappointment with their champagne and Party City hats. How much does this study on happiness and our own self-awareness mean for a bunch of college-age students who are told time and time again that these college years are going to be “the best four years of their life?” Think of all that pressure being put on these four,  fleeting years to be the absolute best. Is having this be the best semester ever actually feasible when we have such high expectations?

So here I am, a junior at Duke. I now have to accept the reality that I am more than halfway done with my years here (but please don’t say that to my face, I’ll just get mad at you). Now let’s add on the pressure of just arriving back on Duke’s campus after a semester abroad (and realizing I’m washed up), finding summer plans (hello internship stress and everyone believing that doing anything but a Wall Street internship is basically a failure), on top of the existing pressure for good (I mean perfect- remember, we are Duke students) grades and keeping up the work hard, play harder mentality of a vibrant social life (shooters I really did miss you while I was abroad). Predicting the semester is pretty simple math given what Ariely has already proved here. Probably some more disappointment, this time with an organized homework planner, an email inbox in the thousands, and very little sleep to go with it.

Sometimes, all you’ll need to come to terms with is the reality behind your over-eager attitude towards school and life to be able to take a step back and accept that sometimes taking time for yourself is necessary to de-stress, that getting a (dun dun dun) B is acceptable, and that spending a night in is just as fine too. There’s a reason we feel that disappointment when reality doesn’t mirror our expectations, but how often is reality really picture perfect?

These four years are going to be absolutely amazing, and there’s no question about that. There’s no other time in our life where our only primary responsibilities are for ourselves and our studies. So take advantage, and at the end of the day, take some time to think about everything that’s probably being overlooked on a daily basis. Realize how amazing your friends are, how you actually are so interested in what you’re learning in class, or the fact that you are on a campus like this. No but really, you’re on campus with research as incredible as Ariely’s being conducted on a daily basis, and most of it you probably have no clue it’s even going on. Let’s all just stop trying to name these four years the “best” because of all of the added pressure that that puts on it, but rather choose to point out all the little things that are the best of each day. Instead let’s save that label- “best”- for last years’ basketball season, because that’s a fact.

If you’re interested to learn more of Dan Ariely’s research, find out if we are really in control of our decision making here, what makes us feel good about our work here, and the honest truth about dishonesty here.