Sunday, September 22, 2013

Wray Herbert on "The George Bailey Effect"

Psychologist Christopher Peterson at Psychology Today has a nice Thanksgiving piece on mental subtraction–the idea that “imagining away” our blessings may be a better route to gratitude and happiness than the much-touted “counting our blessings.” I discuss this prescription–also called the “George Bailey effect”–in the book’s chapter on the Futuristic Heuristic, excerpted here:


“Psychologists have begun exploring another technique that may prove valuable in avoiding disappointment. They call it the “George Bailey effect.” George Bailey, you’ll recall, was the fictional small-town banker in the beloved Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

Frustrated by financial problems at the bank and his own squandered ambitions, Bailey decides to end it all by jumping from a bridge into the icy waters of Bedford Falls. He survives only because his personal angel intercedes, and this angel takes him on a tour of what life would be without him. He witnesses the absence of all the joys his family and community might have had, and in this process his hope is restored.

It’s a perennial favorite at Christmas, and new research suggests we may be able to recreate the same psychological process any time, with or without an angel. Psychologist Minkyung Koo of the University of Virginia had the idea that mentally “undoing” positive events by thinking about the absence of those events—basically following George Bailey’s lead—could be tonic. It’s counterintuitive, because thinking about losing out on good stuff is inherently unpleasant, but she speculated that such negative thinking would make positive experiences seem better. In other words, the “count your blessings” philosophy of gratitude may be fundamentally flawed.
o test this idea, she asked volunteers to think of an event for which they were grateful, and then to write a narrative of how the event came about. These events could have to do with health, possessions, job success, and so forth, but they had to be specific. Others also wrote about such an event, but they wrote about how, hypothetically, the event might never have occurred—and how surprising its occurrence was to them when it did happen. Then afterward, she assessed the volunteers on such measures as gratitude, joy, appreciation, as well as distress and melancholy.

The findings were unambiguous. Those who had gone through the George Bailey exercise came out higher on every measure of positive emotion than the others. They were uniformly happier. Koo and her colleagues believe that thinking about the absence of an event in effect renews its surprise value. Over time, we adapt emotionally to good things that happen to us—we can’t sustain the high levels of joy and gratitude and excitement. But imagining life without the blessings helps us “unadapt” –and to see our condition as new and surprising once again.

This might work with romantic relationships as well. The psychologists did a similar experiment with people who had been in long-term relationships—almost 14 years on average. Again, they had some recall the basic history of the relationship—how they met, how the relationship progressed, how they made a commitment to one another. Others imagined how it might never have happened, how unlikely their meeting really was and how they might have gone through life without each other. They then asked a battery of questions about their relationship—satisfaction, desire, problems, and so forth.

And again, the psychologists found that mentally “subtracting” the good things in life led to increased satisfaction across the board. It may be that just spending a few minutes a day “undoing” our good fortunes can reinvigorate them—and make us feel better. This does not mean we shouldn’t savor the vivid emotional memories of election night or not root for our favorite football team. Peak experiences bring joy to life. But we need to keep elections, football games and relationships—and more—in perspective, and counting our blessings may not be enough to do that.

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