Cambridge Prosociality and Well-Being Lab

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The Academic Rat Race--Why do we do science again?

by Alex 11. July 2013 16:39

I started doing research my second month of college. And it was all about passion for discovery and learning back then. I was walking on campus one day, thinking about how loving and being loved are different things, yet I hadn't really heard a lot of people discussing the difference. And I thought wouldn't it be fun to study this? Problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to do research or where to begin.

By a life changing stroke of luck, the psychology department's undergraduate advisor sent me to Dacher Keltner. And he took me under his lab's wing--Dacher, Chris Oveis, and the BSI lab taught me how to be a researcher. I spent three years effectively living in the lab, becoming deeply in love with the work. Come my final year, I did my honors thesis on the difference between loving and being loved. Boom.

Back during those very early days, I had no idea about publications or grants or citations. I had never heard of the h-index or impact factors. Science was a way of probing reality rather than a journal outlet. My biggest joys came from a cool finding during data analysis--I loved, loved, loved working with data and seeing the patterns that emerged from it. 

But then I became very passionate about pursuing a scientific career--becoming a faculty member somewhere and continuing to engage in this academic adventure. I learned very quickly about first author papers, A-journals, and trial by fire that is trying to get fellowships and grants. 

I don't know where the shift happened, but it certainly occurred: I became very much focused on the pragmatics of the career. Number of publications, journal outlets, and grant money became the biggest joys. Somehow the aim of understanding nature, and working towards promoting greater human outcomes became secondary to these pragmatics.

Making this realization was hard. I found myself doing science for the wrong reasons. And just flipping back to focusing purely on discovery and learning is not prudent either--publications, journal outlets, and grant money DO indeed matter greatly to getting academic jobs and keeping them. But getting back to loving DISCOVERY and working towards understanding is even more critical. Its the heart of the field.

Ultimately, doing academia isn't really doing a job. Its a paid hobby--and typically a not-so-well paid hobby :-p. Pragmatics matter, but if they become the core, then academia does become a job. And I think we can really lose ourselves then. As a young scholar, its very easy to fall into the pragmatics--they hang over us extremely strongly on the tide of uncertainty that is omnipresent until tenure (I hope it goes away at least a bit then!). But its a mistake to ride that tide and forget what got us in the water in the first place. 


The price of freedom: Opportunities and possibilities?

by Alex 12. May 2013 12:24

Today's post has very little to do with psychology and nothing to do with our research. Instead, its more of a musing of mine on society. But this is why we have a blog :-p. 


I did quite a bit of my growing up in the United States, where one of the big cultural tenets is the virtue of freedom and independence. Being able to choose what you do, when you do it, how you do it--and not depending on others (like the government) to live your life. Freedom and independence are often contrasted with tyranny, socialism, communism, etc; these messages ring powerfully and intuitively sensible--after all, who doesn't want to have control and dominion over their own life? Who wants others regulating what we can do and how we can do it? Another very popular idea/expression is that freedom isn't free--see above coffee mug :-p. And this is typically used to encourage Americans to support the military.

Recently, I was inspired to think about these ideas a bit differently, reflecting on who are the most free and independent people in the world. My best answer are hunter-gatherers: People living in very small-scale, loosely organized social groups, where at least in some cases, people are completely self-sufficient (at least as a family unit). They hunt/gather their own food, make their own clothes and shelter, and have few social rules/obligations to constrain how they do this. (Side point: my anthropology friends will be quick to point out that many hunter-gatherer societies have a great deal of interdependence and the tribe is a very important unit of organization, but forgive my simplification for the broader point I'm making.) And this was the predominant organizational structure of our societies up until about 10,000 years ago. Then agriculture hit.

The agricultural revolution transformed societies. Now people could produce far more food than they could consume, allowing others to not worry about food production and go do other things. New jobs appeared: craftsmen, artists, politicians, scientists--just to name a few. And societies have marched on since then, getting exceedingly more complex, offering more and more possibilities to its citizens for the types of work (and play!) people can engage in. But what strikes me here is that these possibilities emerge out of a growing interdependence of people. I can be a scientist, but that is only possible because I can rely on others to raise the crops and animals which I can eat, to build roads on which I travel, to construct the shelter in which I live, etc. People gave up any semblance of self-sufficiency as they moved from a society where they truly provided for their own needs to a society where they must rely on countless others to meet those needs. 

This is a fascinating paradox: From this perspective, losing freedom and independence in favor of greater interdependence (and societies with increasing number of rules and regulations) has allowed people to have many, many more opportunities and possibilities for how they live their lives. At its core, the paradox exists because we can never be free of our biological needs and constraints. We all need to eat and sleep--and to a certain degree, have shelter. So any form of survival has to start with addressing how are these needs met. If we truly want to free and independent, we have made these needs our masters--which pre-agriculture, consumed quite a bit of time and energy from everyone, leaving little time for much else. 

So perhaps its not freedom and independence that we want, but rather the opportunity to pursue our goals and dreams. Interestingly, I'd suggest this is most possible in societies where people aren't very free in terms of their money. I have an education bias being an educator by trade; so its no surprise I believe that education (especially higher education) is a vitally important for many of the more complex jobs in our societies (typically the ones that pay the most money, are most respected, and attract the greatest interest). In a society where people are afforded more freedom in how they choose to spend their money (e.g. lower taxes), paying for education falls on individuals (see the US as an example). But this creates a serious barrier of entry, and now many people who qualify academically to enter university, decide or are forced to decide against it because of the lack of funds. In contrast, societies that give people less freedom over how they spend their money (so higher taxes) can offer free education at the university level, removing a major barrier to many students, and creating greater opportunity. Less freedom with money can allow societies to create more opportunities for its people by creating public goods and services.

I find this opportunity out of interdependence especially true in my own work. At the end of the day, my main job is to do research. And academia provides some of the greatest freedoms to people to manage their own time and the work that they do. I effectively run my own intellectual adventure and don't really have any sort of boss to answer to on a regular basis. At least thats the surface. When you look more deeply, you find that since academic jobs are so scarce, people have virtually no control over WHERE they are going to work--spin the globe and hope you land somewhere nice. I was lucky enough to land in Cambridge; I could have just as easily landed in Montana (my apologies to anyone from Montana). Research is also almost completely dependent on our ability to get grants from the government and private donors. Research costs a lot of money to do. So my lab--and every other lab--is very much dependent on the wisdom, kindness, and vision of governments and private donors to invest in research. While I am quite free to choose what we study, it better be something of worth to society and something that we can publish--and publish a lot. Otherwise, this intellectual adventure will be cut short all too quickly. Furthermore, the ability of my lab to do work would completely disappear without the support we get from every layer of the university--from administrators in and out of the department, to the estates staff, to campus security, on and on and on. I get to do my absolute dream job, but I am far from free and independent--in fact, I find myself extremely interdependent with society as a whole, the university, and my many close colleagues and collaborators.

Elizabeth Warren--now Senator of Massachusetts and previously law professor at Harvard--made a beautiful point along this same sort of thinking. She talked about how people feel extremely successful if they create a company and it does well. And there is an instinct here to say, look at what I've done on my own; I should keep the fruits of my labor. But as Mrs. Warren points out, virtually any business functions because of a reliance on services and infrastructure that the broader society has paid for. You build a factory, great, but you will surely be using the roads, railroads, ports, etc. that were built with the collective goods of society and that now the factory can use to be successful. The factory could not possibly survive on its own; it can only work through interdependence with the broader structure of society. 

So what is the price of freedom? Well, if by freedom, we mean moving our societies towards more individual autonomy, self-sufficiency, and less reliance on the broader social structure, it may very well mean fewer opportunities and possibilities for people. But if by freedom we mean people having fair and multifaceted opportunities and possibilities to pursue their passions, I'd suggest we should strive to maintain--and expand--the interdependence of our societies and the public goods and services that collective, coordinated, NON-autonomous action can bring. 


Religion and happiness (with lots of graphs and figures!)

by Alex 28. April 2013 10:33

Our lab recently published two papers on religion, so this marks a great opportunity to look at the truly timeless question of whether religion is related to happiness. 

For everything presented here, I'm using the World Values Survey (WVS)--a survey that has over 400,000 participants in about 100 countries. Given the large number of participants and the broad number of countries sampled, the World Values Survey gives us some of the best benchmarks for how religious people are, how happy people are, and the link between the two.

Assessing how religious people are is far from easy. Are we asking about people who participate in organized religion? But then what about people who are spiritual or believe in God without necessarily attending Church? There is no good answer to this problem, but the question I think is most encompassing in the WVS asked people "how important is God in your life" on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 10 (very important). Here's a histogram of how frequently each of the ten possible answers to this question came up in the survey:



What immediately jumps out here is that 10 (very important) was by far the most popular choice. Here's another histogram comparing 10 to everyone else (so 1 through 9). 


Indeed, 41% of everyone in the sample said that God is maximally important to their lives. In contrast, about 11% said that God is not at all important in their lives. 

What these figures illustrate to us is that God is relevant to the vast majority of the global population. And for a sizable plurality (41%), God is extremely important. 

God is relevant, but are people who view God as important to their lives any happier than people who see little importance in God? There's been quite a bit of work on this question with studies varying in size from a hundred or so to mass-scale, global surveys. In general, the findings are that people who believe in God and are religious tend to be somewhat happier. This isn't to say that every religious person is going to be happier than every non-religious person, but it does suggest that on average, this tends to be true--so we could say that if we knew nothing else about two people except for whether they are religious or not, then the religious person is somewhat more likely to be happier than the non-religious person (key word here is LIKELY--you'd have to check with them to find out the reality about these two specific individuals).

Lets look at some data on this in the WVS. One big challenge when doing international studies is that there are a lot of factors that feed into happiness and people use scales very differently. So if we just looked at whether God's importance predicts happiness without taking into account country, then we'd be confounding the effect of religion with a lot of other factors (like GDP, education, culture, etc). So one good way is to examine the relationship within each country. Below is a global map with the relationship between God's Importance and satisfaction with life (proxy for happiness) in each country depicted visually. The deeper the blue, the more POSITIVE the relationship; the deeper the green, the more NEGATIVE the relationship. Countries with no data are depicted as white. 


As the figure shows above, there's a lot of blue. What we can glean from this is that in most countries, the relationship is positive between God's importance and life satisfaction. 

Here's an interesting nugget though: It's not quite that anyone religious is going to be happier. The effect is biggest really for the most religious. 

To see this, we can look at average satisfaction with life for people who scored at each of the 10 levels of God's importance. In these analyses, I've subtracted the average satisfaction of life for people in each person's country to make the effects as unconfounded as possible. 


What we see here is that people with values of 2-5 are a bit lower than people with values of 1, and then people with values of 6 through 9 are a bit higher than 1. Where the biggest jump is for people who score 10--which as you will recall is 41% of the global population. It's a "go big or go home" effect :). 

We also know that the strength of the relationship between religion and satisfaction with life/happiness isn't uniform across all countries. At least two factors are important. First, people who find God important are going to be especially happier than their non-religious counterparts in highly religious countries. So in other words, its going to be especially positive to be religious when other people around you are also religious. And since most people in the world are religious, we get a lot of positive links between religion/God's importance and satisfaction with life/happiness.

The other factor that's important--and we highlighted this in our new paper--"Uncertainty avoidance moderates the link between faith and subjective well-being around the world"--is how much a culture feels uncomfortable with uncertainty. We found that in nations that are highly avoidant of uncertainty, the effect of God's importance on satisfaction with life and happiness is stronger. This makes sense in that in such nations, religion offers people answers to why the world and Universe are as they are, and thus explaining some of the uncertainty. More uncertainty explained, greater peace of mind for those who are made especially anxious by uncertainty.

Long story short, the data suggests a few take home points. 1) God/religion are still relevant and highly important for most people globally (though this isn't uniformly true with some nations being far more religious than others), 2) there is a somewhat positive relationship between religion and happiness, but it varies depending on one's cultural and social context. Furthermore, we need to remember that happiness is extremely mutli-causal--religion is certainly only one of many factors involved.

One last point for the good scientists out there who hate causal language when you have correlational designs. All the data above is indeed correlational, meaning that from this data alone, its hard to draw causal conclusions. But it should be noted there's been a ton of work on the question of how religion and happiness are related, and from this other work, there's good reason to suspect that religion, faith, and related activities do have a causal effect on happiness.   


How many sexual partners have people ACTUALLY had?

by Alex 11. April 2013 08:54

I was recently having a chat with a dear friend of mine, and the number of sexual partners came up. My friend guessed that his number was well below average because he had been in a stable relationship for several years. His number was 6. This got me thinking: What is the average number of sexual partners people have had?

Enter The Health Survey of England--a survey of over 12,000 men and women with this exact question being asked. You can read a Telegraph article all about it here.

The key highlight is that women on average report 4.7 partners and men report 9.3. At first glance, this fits our stereotypes: Men are out there trying to sleep with anything that moves while women are the more chaste of the sexes. But after this initial reaction, we might start to wonder who in the world are all these men sleeping with?

Imagine you have 100 men and 100 women. We will also say that the average man is reporting 10 partners and the average woman is reporting 5 to make our lives a bit easier. So in this case, we are expecting 1000 pairings based on what the men are saying and 500 pairings based on what the women are saying. Where are those extra 500 pairings coming from? 

One possibility is sex workers. Its probably reasonable to suspect that sex workers were less likely to take part in the survey, and so perhaps its this group of women who have had a great number of partners that is making up for the gap? Here's the problem with this possibility: At best, 50% of men have to be using sex workers, and at worst, ALL men are using sex workers. Going back to our example, the 500 pairings the women are reporting could completely account for the reported sexual partners of 50 men. That would leave the other 50 men having to get ALL of their sexual partners from sex workers. On the other extreme, lets say each man has 5 non-sex worker partners. Then every man must sleep with 5 sex workers to make up the gap. Both these cases strike me as extremely implausible. Sex workers may explain some of the gap, but likely a small portion of it.

A second possibility is that this number is being driven by gay men, who we do know tend to have greater number of sexual partners than heterosexual men and women, and lesbian women. According to the 2011 UK Census, roughly only 1% of the population reported being gay or lesbian. Lets assume this number is a gross underestimate and the real number is 5%. So lets go to our running example. We need to account for 500 pairings for women and 1000 pairings for men. Lets say 95 of the women and 95 of the men are heterosexual, so they account 475 pairings for each. The 5 lesbian women need to account for 25 pairings, so five a piece there. But the five gay men need to account for 525 pairings! So they would need to each average 105 partners! In our running example, thats impossible--since there are only five gay men--but this isnt a problem if you have a larger population. What is a problem is that 105 partners is a very, very large number--making the gay men explanation also hard to believe. And this is with us assuming that 5% of the population is gay or lesbian. Had we gone with the rate reported (1%), that would require gay men to have on average 505 sexual partners to make the math work!

The third possibility is people are lying. Our societies still sadly have double standards for the men and women when it comes to sex: Women are far more likely to be viewed negatively for having a large number of sexual partners than men. Men may even gain status and prestige from having a high number of partners. And so we have pressure for women to underreport and for men to overreport. In the Health Survey of England, 1/3 of the men admitted to estimating the number of partners they've had. Yea, estimating up. 

Sex workers and higher levels of sexual partners among gay men are likely part of the answer (small parts) for the discrepancy, but I'd bet the biggest reason behind the discrepancy is people fudging the truth. 

So back to our original question: How many sexual partners have people actually had? Probably somewhere between 6 to 8 (for heterosexual men and women), if we guess that men are overstating it and women are understating it. 


Inaugural Post: Who We Are and What We Do

by Alex 1. April 2013 20:33

We are a 21st century lab.

And so--according to our lab wizard--we need to have a blog to communicate with the world.

Our hope is that through this medium, we will go beyond the scientific crowd that reads our papers, and discuss in a real, honest way what our research, and the research of others, means. So who are we? What do we do? Why should you care? Glad you asked.

We are the Cambridge Prosociality and Well-being Lab. Our lab is based in--you guessed it--the University of Cambridge in the Department of Psychology, and we specialize in the "Science of Kindness and Happiness". How we do this is through a combination of biological and psychological techniques. We will study your genes, hormones, physiological responses, brain activity, questionnaire responses, behaviours in real life, and what others think of you. We examine the consequences of acting kindly on the recipient, the giver, and society as a whole. We ask how can we build a society where people can be happy sustainably? We study relationships, love, group interactions, and everything in between. Its truly uplifting to do this work: I am constantly struck by the pervasiveness of kindness in our world--we are far, far kinder to one another than most people believe. Likewise, I am constantly amazed by people's resilience: People are able to maintain a state of happiness through trials and tribulations, adapting to new circumstance with remarkable fluidity. And so we try to understand all this and more.

Our lab consists of me (Alex Kogan) as the director, several postdocs and graduate students, and undergraduates volunteering in our lab. Just as critically, we work with wonderful collaborators from labs all over the world. Every part of our group is vital to make the research possible. We love them all :).

Sadly, we don't have a photo of everyone together. But here is part of our group, taken in Fall 2012. :)


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