Dan’s Hike, Part 3: Getting Meta

By: Stephanie Tepper //  @stephanietepper

In the social sciences, we are constantly addressing difficult questions around measuring outcomes of interest. How do we define the success of a behavioral intervention? How do we choose what to test? And how do we measure what we choose to focus on? In this third installment of reflections on Dan’s hike, we’ll explore the concept of reflection itself and how it might impact his enjoyment of the experience.

Within the CAH, our outcomes of interest are often fairly nebulous constructs. In order to develop interventions to improve financial well-being, for example, we must define concrete outcome variables that we’ll be able to measure in an experiment. While self-reported measures of well-being are often insightful, we know that people’s perception of their own well-being may be clouded by all sorts of psychological biases.

One of the most pervasive biases in self-reporting is social desirability — or the tendency to present ourselves in a way that will be viewed favorably by others — and its effects have spread beyond the lab and into our social media worlds. As we begin to track and measure our lived experiences, we are becoming familiar with the ways in which we tend to project our most appealing features and subdue those that are less share-worthy.

Beyond the effects on our perceptions of ourselves and others, researchers near and dear to the lab have begun looking into how these relatively new ways of tracking and measuring might influence our enjoyment of the very experiences we’re trying to document. In a set of five studies, Wolfe and colleagues found that participants who were asked to tweet, or think about tweeting, during an experience reported less enjoyment of that experience. This effect was driven by increases in mind-wandering during the experience, suggesting that this meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) with an added layer of social desirability may be dulling the very experiences we’re trying to capture and savor.

Levels of optimism | Dan Ariely chart

Dan’s levels of optimism from days 12-22

While Dan has been keeping up with outward-facing measurements throughout his hike, he has maintained high levels of enjoyment rather than exhibiting the decrease that we see in the research. Arguably, he may have fallen prey to some social desirability bias, but there are some other psychological factors worth exploring. First, it’s unclear whether Dan is posting during or after his daily adventures. In fact, posting at the end of the day may actually boost enjoyment; research suggests that expressive writing (think: journaling), or reflecting about an experience once it’s ended, helps us process experiences and leads to greater positive feelings. Further, the act of measuring may provide a chance for Dan to tap into his community via the virtual world, decreasing some of the separation anxiety he may have felt during the day. Based on his updates so far, it seems like Dan’s measurements have been a way to document his memories rather than keep up appearances. At the very least, we haven’t seen any mid-meal pictures yet, so I’d bet he’s doing a pretty good job of savoring his experiences.

 Dan Ariely`s - levels of optimism

“The hills are alive…”

Wolfe, J. (2013). All that twitters is not gold: How verbally documenting or reflecting during or after an experience can affect enjoyment (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Duke University, Durham, NC.