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

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

REGINA BARBER, HOST:

I just moved, so I spent a lot of time evaluating my living situation, thinking about whether to be in a house, an apartment, and how it could be different...

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BARBER: ...Like, it'd be nice to have a bathtub.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How can my living space be different? Now that my wife and I are empty nesters, we could make our lower level - maybe put a little office there, maybe a listening space.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I would love to have a bigger living room to, like, do art nights in and host people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My roommate could have heat in her room. That's a big one.

BARBER: What are you noticing here? Any patterns? I asked two social psychologists this question - Ethan Ludwin-Peery at Hampshire College...

ETHAN LUDWIN-PEERY: Oh, man. I mean, the bathroom in my apartment could be bigger. It's a great apartment, but my bathroom is a closet.

BARBER: ...And Adam Mastroianni at Columbia Business School.

What about - Adam, how can your living space be different?

ADAM MASTROIANNI: Well, I mean, given that I'm speaking to you on a laptop that's precariously perched on two boxes, there's a pillow behind this mike to, like, dampen the sound...

BARBER: Yeah.

MASTROIANNI: ...I'm, like, sort of in half-darkness because there's no overhead lights in this room.

BARBER: Me too.

MASTROIANNI: So those are just a few things that come to mind. So there's definite room for improvement in this room.

BARBER: Ethan and Adam have been thinking about how things could be different - actually, a lot. Not just their living spaces, but everything - even YouTube or iPhones or Congress. This all started as a thought experiment they had. They were sitting in this old school diner eating omelets, and...

MASTROIANNI: One of us asked a stupid question. I forget who it was, but, you know, it was something like, why do people think some things are better than other things? You know, why do people hate the government but love their phone? Like, how do people come to that judgment?

BARBER: And that's how the research began. Ethan and Adam, being social psychologists, were like, wait a minute - we can test this.

MASTROIANNI: A logical way of thinking about it is people think that things are good when it's hard to think about how they could be better. And people think that things are bad when it's easy to think about how things could be better. That seems like a pretty reasonable way for a mind to work. And then we started wondering, well, is that true?

BARBER: So they decided to see - is it easier to imagine a better version of something the worse you think of it? So Ethan and Adam began testing this hypothesis. They ran nine studies that included hundreds of people.

MASTROIANNI: And by the way, none of this is actually what we found. But all of that is what we thought we might find when we started out.

BARBER: Today on the show, Ethan and Adam share what they actually found after finishing up their omelets - a possible fundamental law of psychology about human satisfaction. I'm Regina Barber, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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BARBER: OK, so let's start out with how Ethan and Adam's first study worked. It surveyed 243 people, and its premise was pretty basic.

MASTROIANNI: Study 1 was just a test of what happens when you ask people how things could be different. So we had this list of items that we had gotten from a previous study, just things that people are thinking about in the course of their everyday lives. And we asked people how each of those things could be different. So how could cars be different? How could your life be different? How could YouTube be different? And people typed out their answers, and then later we showed them their own answers again. So here's how you said cars could be different. If it were different in that way, how much better or worse would it be?

And what we found is for every single item, people told us that they thought about how that thing could be better. So they said, oh, you know, cars could be more fuel efficient, they could look prettier, they could fly. All these ways that things could be better. And this was true for every single item and for 90% of our participants, they did this, on average.

BARBER: That's huge. Ninety percent.

LUDWIN-PEERY: It is huge.

BARBER: Ethan and Adam wanted to make sure this 90% wasn't because of how their questions were worded or what items they were asking about. So they took it one step further and ran more studies - a lot more. They even tested if different word choices or mental health conditions like depression or anxiety made a difference. But across all scenarios, they saw people all saying how things could be better.

LUDWIN-PEERY: My favorite studies, I think, have to be Studies 6 and 7, where we extended our results to English-speaking Polish people in Poland and then Mandarin-speaking Chinese people in China.

BARBER: So what did you find in the - in Studies 6 and 7 when you expanded outside of, like, you know, English-speaking U.S.?

LUDWIN-PEERY: We found the exact same thing. People disproportionally rated how things could be better. We gave them essentially the same set of items, you know, changed a little bit for the different language and for the different cultures. But when we asked people, hey, how could all these things be different, they generally gave us improvements.

BARBER: When it was time to publish their results, Ethan and Adam decided to do something a little abnormal in academia. They put their paper on a free, non-peer-reviewed archive of psychology science research. It's called PsyArXiv.

MASTROIANNI: Basically, we were trying to write this for a conventional scientific journal, and we couldn't write the paper without lying, basically. I mean, we had to pretend that, oh, this is clearly connected to all this other literature. And, like, we definitely know why this happens, and we didn't forget why we ran any of these studies. And just none of those things are true. And I think we do readers and the public a disservice when we pretend that it's that way.

BARBER: So in your paper, you mention upholding research to the same standards as any peer-reviewed paper. But what do you mean by surpassing some of those standards, or being just as good? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

MASTROIANNI: So most journals don't require you to post your data. They don't require you to pre-register your results. You can just kind of vaguely describe your methods. And that's often enough. And so when we published this paper, all the data and the code are online, so you can look at them if you're interested. All the materials are there. In fact, they're - you know, if you sign up for a free account on Qualtrics, which is, like, the website that we use to run the studies, there's a file that you can drag into it that will recreate the study exactly as we ran it.

And, I think, something even more important in the way that we wrote the paper, we were completely honest and transparent about the things that we did. And that's one reason we wrote it this way, that if we were writing this for a journal, we would have to be like, and of course, Study 8 we ran for this reason, which was completely intended and remembered by us. And instead, we were like, we forgot why we ran the study. We do think the results are interesting. But if you have some idea about why we might have run this study, like, please, write to us because it remains a mystery to us. And people really did. They wrote to us with all kinds of theories as to why we ran Study 8, which was extremely heartwarming.

BARBER: So what was the reception for this paper? How did people feel about this paper written in this way and published in this way?

MASTROIANNI: So I write this blog called Experimental History. And the plan was just to put it there. But I wanted there to be, you know, a persistent, like, PDF on a website that people could refer to. And so the night before, I uploaded it to this site called PsyArXiv where people just upload psychology papers. And I went to sleep, planning to, like, publish the blog post version the next day. And I woke up to find that, like, people had read it. And people were retweeting it. And I had emails from psychologists. I mean, I woke up to tweet saying, like, I finished this paper at 6:30 a.m. in my bed. And, like, that was such a good experience. Or, like, I could show this to my 8-year-old and she would understand it.

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MASTROIANNI: That felt really good because that's the way I think science should be. Like, if you can't explain it in such a way that an 8-year-old could at least grasp some version of what you did, then, like, you don't really know what you did.

BARBER: These studies and people's responses to their paper had Adam and Ethan excited, speculating on what the results could mean on how psychologists understand human satisfaction in the future. So Adam, what you all found was surprising because it almost seemed like everyone felt this way. So how do you interpret that? Like, why is this a big deal?

MASTROIANNI: Practically, a reason it may be important is that this might be sort of the circuitry that underlies the hedonic treadmill. So the hedonic treadmill is this idea in psychology that once you are moderately happy, it's pretty hard to get happier than that. People tend to adjust to improvements in their situation. So you know, you go from - we were talking earlier about the various things that are wrong with our living spaces. You could fix those. And then you would find other things. You'd be imagining, well, but I could have two bathrooms. I could have more overhead lighting. I could have a hot tub and a second hot tub. If we keep doing this, then no matter how good things get, we never feel satisfied.

BARBER: Yeah. Ethan, what about you? Why does this matter?

LUDWIN-PEERY: I think it really matters because, as psychologists, we've sort of played around for about a hundred years, finding a lot of individual effects, which are small and don't tell us a lot about how the mind really operates. There are some big exceptions. But it's very, very rare that we find something that seems like it could even plausibly be, you know, a rule of psychology, a fundamental law of how minds work. And I don't know if this is, you know? We haven't actually studied it that much in the grand scheme of things. Only two researchers have taken an interest in this effect so far, us. But I think this is - plausibly, this is the sort of thing that could be a fundamental law of psychology. And we should be spending more of our time trying to find things like this. So I think it's exciting for that reason.

BARBER: Why is it that we never feel satisfied, any hypothesis?

LUDWIN-PEERY: I don't know. I don't know. We tried a bunch of things to try to get at this, and it never worked. And so I have no idea. And I look forward to hearing from everyone on the internet about why this might be the case. And then maybe we can all work together to test it. But I really do not know. And I'm not afraid to admit it.

MASTROIANNI: You know, look; when you have no idea what's going on, you can always turn to evolution. We're pretty sure that that's real, that exists. So would this tendency make sense from an evolutionary standpoint? You know, our ancestors were sitting in the cold and the rain. And they were hungry. And they thought about how things could be better, that if their tummies were full and they lived in shelters. And they did those things. They survived. They reproduced. We are their descendants. It could be that this tendency in our imagination is useful. It helps us realize our goals. But it comes at the cost of preventing us from ever being satisfied.

LUDWIN-PEERY: There is a really interesting perspective on psychology, which is that it's all about understanding errors, like, differences either in prediction or in desire. And so, like, from this perspective, then it would make sense that, at some level, existence is suffering because you're designed to build that, to detect that. You're built in that way. And so, like, that's what registers.

MASTROIANNI: I think that being human means being a little dissatisfied all the time and always reaching for the thing that you think will make things better.

BARBER: Yeah. I mean, it's keeping us going - right? - just keeps us going. I want to thank both of you for letting me talk to you about how things could be better. It's been awesome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

LUDWIN-PEERY: Thank you so much. This was really fun.

MASTROIANNI: Yeah. Thanks for having us. I cannot imagine how this interview could have been better.

LUDWIN-PEERY: (Laughter) Me neither.

BARBER: Oh, very nice. Nice closer.

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BARBER: You can find Ethan and Adam's paper, called "Things Could Be Better," in our show notes. It's a fun read. This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and edited by Rebecca Ramirez. Anil Oza checked the facts. The audio engineer was Alex Drewenskus. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Our senior director of programming is Beth Donovan. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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