Reason has its place in decision-making — but don’t underestimate the value of feelings in making decisions that align with what you care about, says Yale psychologist Robb Rutledge. In this edition of “Office Hours,” a Q&A series that introduces newcomers to the Yale faculty to the broader university community, he tells us more about what influences our choices, whether there is an equation for happiness, and how his research has influenced his own behavior.
A lot of your work involves the study of human learning and decision-making. In general, what sort of decisions are humans best and worst at making?
The most important decisions we make often don’t have right or wrong answers. I’m interested in why people want different things and why our preferences sometimes change. For example, we discovered that spontaneous fluctuations in dopamine areas of the brain can change how likely we are to take risks from minute to minute.
Has your scholarly work influenced the way you make choices?
I trust my gut more than I used to. My lab’s research on happiness shows that what we feel says a lot about what we value, even when we can’t quite explain why.
Of all your research results to date, which do you find yourself talking about with non-scholars most often, and what do you make of that?
The idea that happiness could be predicted using mathematical equations surprises a lot of people. People have been talking about happiness for thousands of years. There is still so much we don’t know! You might expect that happiness just reflects how well you’re doing, but we find that happiness depends a lot on expectations, and specifically whether you have been doing better than expected recently. A fixation on recent surprises makes sense when you think about what your brain is trying to do. Your brain’s job is to help you survive, not to make you happy.
You’ve found interesting ways to use smartphone data in your research. What’s a good example of its value?
We have a free smartphone app, The Happiness Project, and anyone in the world can contribute to our research by playing short games on their phones. Over 15,000 people have already played this year. Apps let us study people of all ages and backgrounds. We’ve found that as people get older, they take fewer risks for reward, something we think relates to gradual changes in the dopamine system.
Do you have any advice about how the rest of us can make better choices?
Some people think emotions should have no place in our decisions, but our emotions reflect our values. Happiness is not a goal, it’s a tool. It can help us to understand ourselves, and noticing our feelings can help us make decisions aligned with what we actually care about.
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