Are we never happy? Humans tend to imagine how things could be better : Short Wave Are humans ever satisfied? Two social psychologists, Ethan Ludwin-Peery and Adam Mastroianni, fell down a research rabbit hole accidentally answering a version of this very question. After conducting several studies, the pair found that when asked how things could be different, people tend to give one kind of answer, regardless of how the question is asked or how good life felt when they were asked. Short Wave's Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber digs into the research—and how it might reveal a fundamental law of psychology about human satisfaction.

Humans want to make everything better — but sometimes different is just as good

Humans want to make everything better — but sometimes different is just as good

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Social psychologists Ethan Ludwin-Peery and Adam Mastroianni were in a diner one day, eating omelets, when they thought of a question neither of them could definitively answer. What makes some things good and some things bad? More concretely, why do a lot of people think of the government as bad and their phones as good?

Ethan and Adam hypothesized that humans think of something as bad when it is easy to imagine how that thing could be better. But when they dove into the scientific literature to see if research supported their hypothesis, the two realized that there is little research about how people make these judgement calls.

So they got to work.

The pair of researchers conducted studies ... lots of them. After surveying hundreds of people, Ethan and Adam realized they may have been wrong.

When asked how things could be different, people tend to always answer with how they could be better—even if life is already pretty good. This holds true regardless of language or word choice.

Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber talks to Ethan and Adam about their research, and how it might reveal a fundamental law of psychology about human satisfaction.

Read their paper, "Things Could Be Better".

Curious about other laws of human behavior? Email us at shortwave@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and edited by Rebecca Ramirez. Anil Oza checked the facts. The audio engineer was Alex Drewenskus.