Psychologist Barry Schwartz Talks Future Plans, Finding the "Happy Medium" in Q&A

Association for Psychological Science Daily Observations: Q & A with Psychological Scientist Barry Schwartz

March 26, 2012

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. His research investigates the decision-making processes that underlie our choices and examines how our choices make us feel. We invited our Facebook and Twitter followers to ask Schwartz questions about his research - here is what he had to say:

Do you have any suggestions for a better college application process that would not only be helpful in stopping the extreme competitiveness in our society but also better match students to the college that best suites them?

Yes I do. There is no college that "best suits" students, any more than there are "best students" that best suit a college. The trick is to stop this relentless chasing after the best. And the way to do that is for colleges to make binary decisions about applicants (good enough or not) and then choose from among the "good enough" at random. This would take a lot of pressure off high school kids and you'd end up with classes that are just as good as what we have now. ...

What does your current research examine? What are your future research plans?

I'm currently collaborating with some people at USC on an investigation of whether and how neuroscientific explanations of behavior change people's inclination to hold others responsible. And I'm starting to work on a book on the dark side of incentives, a theme that has occupied me on and off for 30 years. ...

You mentioned that there are both positives and negatives to greater freedom of choice. It seemed that your stance was more in favor of the negatives, however. While there is no doubt that harm could occur as a result of having more choices, is it possible that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Or, perhaps should more effort go into finding the "happy medium" between the two?

I recently wrote a paper with Adam Grant that's published in Perspectives on Psych Science that is all about "finding the happy medium" in general. It's true of choice, but it's true of lots of other things too. My own focus on what is negative about choice is not because I think it's mostly negative, but because until recently psychology has ignored the negative all together. ...

Why is it so hard for people to take a step back and try to do their job for the benefits of others and not for themselves?

I think the main reason that it's hard is that people get so little social support and acknowledgement for doing the right thing. People feel foolish to even talk in that way. ...