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Jennifer Lerner, Emotions & Decision-making


Emotions & Decision-making

Jennifer Lerner


Jennifer Lerner is Professor of Public Policy, Management, and Decision Science at the Harvard Kennedy School. She also holds appointments in Harvard’s Department of Psychology and Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences. From 2018-19, she served in the federal government as the Navy’s first Chief Decision Scientist and as Special Advisor to the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations.

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Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

Sociologists, political scientists, behavioral scientists have recently written about the decline of social capital. And probably the most famous book on this is Bob Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.” And, in a sense, in recent decades we’ve become a kind of hyper individualistic society, in the United States, even more so than we’ve ever been. Where, we listen to our own music, we individualize everything, and even when we’re on public transportation, we’re tuned in for our own podcasts, our own music, etc. So there has been this real decline in social capital, where we don’t know our neighbors as much, we’re not in clubs with them, we’re not in bowling leagues. And so I think a positive benefit that is coming already, and will, I hope, continue out of the pandemic, is the recognition of how valuable community is. As the basic building block of social capital, many people are now learning who their neighbors are, even though they didn’t know their neighbors before, because we’ve discovered that we need them. And people who are in many different social clubs, social support groups, community organizations are doing better in this pandemic, because they are receiving help. There are neighbors delivering groceries to elderly people, or people with chronic disease, that sort of thing. We’re learning that this kind of maximalist individualism isn’t necessarily the best way to be. That, in fact, we are better when we live within rich layers of community and social networks.

What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

Certainly perspective-taking, something that you’ve written about. Because we are at, we’re in such a fractured time in our society, we really can’t continue like this. We need to be able to think about people who are in different shoes, and in different positions. For example, I was just listening to the radio today and hearing about an African-American man who lives in a neighborhood in Boston called Dorchester. And he happens to be voting for Trump. And he was saying he’s doing that. Because under recent democratic presidential administrations, there was mass incarceration of African American men. And this is the kind of thing where I think a lot of liberals would tend to overgeneralize and think: “ah, someone’s African American, they’re probably a Democrat.” While that might be true, statistically, we have to remember that people have individual experiences. And we need to try to take these diverse perspectives, to understand what’s meaningful to different people, and so many liberals that I know condemn Trump voters, and think of them as sort-of subhuman. But we are all human. And we all are going to need to continue to live in this country together. That’s what democracy requires. And part of doing that is understanding other people’s perspectives. And it’s not necessarily fun work, to think about other views, because we want to… It feels good to think that we’re the right person, the right way of looking at it. But I think we do need to try to understand that people have real reasons why they vote the way they do. And some of them might be thoughtless, but some of them are quite thoughtful. So as we try to heal these divides, and kind of improve the fabric, the social fabric, going forward, because we all do need each other, clearly, we’re not going to get rid of this pandemic, unless we cooperate, I think perspective-taking is a really important piece of wisdom.

Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

This is a really hard question for me, because I think that there are so many significant negative aspects. Being the mother of a teenager, I can see how disillusioning it is for children to see the mishandling by government of this crisis. And I think that will have lasting effects. If we handle it the right way, as parents and in schools, this can be an energizing experience for a lot of young people, but I think it also will have lasting wounds of divisiveness, and disillusionment. I think we need to really work hard, ideally with a new administration, to help people believe again in government. That the people we vote for actually will represent us, keep us safe, not tell lies. And that’s one of I think, the most negative devastating effects of this pandemic. I think probably the most devastating effect is the deaths and disease and suffering. Because, you know, there’s nothing worse than that. And so I don’t want to leave that unnoticed. Then in terms of other social aspects, I think the pandemic has been a great amplifier of existing fault lines. And so the divisions between rich and poor, between elites and non-elites has really been amplified. So, there are people like me, who get to work at home in the comfort of my WiFi-enabled house, and then there are people who have lost their livelihoods, because they were in the service sector, and those services are no longer being offered during the pandemic. Or a variety of other kinds of jobs that have gone by the wayside during the pandemic. And then, of course, differences in access to healthcare. And then the inherent biases within the healthcare system mean that African-American individuals have been dying at much higher rates than they should be relative to their representation within the population. So, a really frightening amplifier of our fault lines, of our weaknesses in society, that I can only hope that those of us who are in a position to take note of and make changes on will, that this will ultimately catalyze change.

What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

Well, for one thing, and I don’t know if this fits your definition of wisdom, but I think that an openness to learning is certainly needed. And so in this class, I just taught with 68 executive level people from around the world we had generals, military generals, from Western Africa, we had police chiefs, from here in the United States, we had diplomats from around the world — a really diverse group. And we systematically went through a lot of data on bias. Looking at, for example, randomized field experiments in hiring and discrimination that takes place at the level of resume screening. And, even though we had people from across the political spectrum, and from many different countries, and different sectors, we all were able in this group, to agree on what the facts revealed about systematic biases in many different gateways in life, such as just trying to get a job, just trying to get an interview, just trying to get into graduate school, that sort of thing. And so, certainly one factor is a willingness to learn. One of the studies that’s particularly compelling to me is one showing that faculty at elite universities in the United States are more likely to respond to email messages from prospective graduate students whose race or ethnicity and gender matches their own. That homophily, as we call it, or in-group bias means that we have this tendency to want to hear from, recruit, mentor little “mini-Mes”, who look like us. And to see that data is very compelling because it comes from people who are usually considered relatively more open-minded — professors at universities. And yet any of us can have that “mini-Me” tendency. So, in so many ways, I think we need to be willing to learn. We also need to be able to tolerate difference. And so, for example, I have a little cottage in a more rural part of Massachusetts then here in the Harvard Square area and my neighbors support the opposite political party from my own, and we completely disagree on everything politically. But he waters my lawn and we are great fans of his dog. And we have managed to get along with communal shared lawns and communal shared property, more generally a communally-shared pool, and there is a way to do that and to model that for our children, to allow for there to be difference. We won’t allow for discrimination. We won’t allow for anything like hate speech, we absolutely draw a line on anything like that. We would never tolerate any outward racism or any kind of discrimination, but we can coexist and share along with people who differ from us. We have to have that commitment to live with difference.

What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

So, again, it’s very hard to come up with one piece of wisdom, I think there are many things. But there is certainly a lot of science behind the practice of gratitude. And gratitude has, I think, two key benefits. One is that when we do things like make a “gratitude list” each day, it enables us to psychologically feel like our bucket is full, and that we’ve taken stock of what we have. And even if all we have is that we can stand up and walk around, we’re not confined to a chair, or something like that, it has a resilience building quality for ourselves. And then the second key benefit of gratitude is that when we are in a grateful state, it triggers a cascade of benefits that also affect others. So, when we’re in a grateful state, we’re more likely to help others and to feel predisposed to giving assistance to others. It also predisposes a sense of impatience, so that we don’t make mistakes where we grab something less than is ideal just to get it now, as opposed to waiting for something better. Our research shows that we are more financially patient and more therefore willing to save money, for example. And so, in sum, I would say — cultivate gratitude. Emotions give us many benefits, they are they help us have adaptive responses to life. And in this case, gratitude is my favorite emotion because it confers benefits to ourselves and benefits to others.
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