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How Does The Way You Feel Shape The Way You Think About Your Life?

Jan 2, 2020
Originally published on January 2, 2020 8:21 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, it's January. You're probably back to work from the holidays. The mornings may be freezing cold. You're tired. Here's the question: How does the way you feel shape how you think about your job, your life? The host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam, joins us regularly on the program. And he's here to explain the big consequences of something that happens literally every day. Good morning, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So I can't imagine anyone's thrilled to be back to work, like, in the early mornings at this time of year or going to an early morning class after the holidays, right?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, David. Now, researchers have recently asked how such moods can have long-lasting consequences. Specifically, behavioral economist Kareem Haggag at Carnegie Mellon University wanted to find out how this affected students. And, you know, David, he himself sometimes has experienced this firsthand. He sometimes teaches early morning classes. And he's worried that when his students are tired or sleepy, they might draw the wrong conclusion about him and about the class.

KAREEM HAGGAG: Our hypothesis was that students who are assigned to an early morning section of the class, or to multiple back-to-back classes before a class, might mix up how tired they are in that class with how much they like the subject, thus leading them to be less likely to choose the subject as their major.

GREENE: So the thinking is - you're tired, you're sleepy, that means you just really hate whatever's happening, and that happens to be calculus class, for example.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. This is a psychological phenomenon called misattribution. You know, you go to an amusement park on a sunny day and you think the park is great. You go when it's raining - you think the park is terrible. You're unconsciously confusing your feelings about the weather for the quality of the park.

What Haggag and his colleagues Richard Patterson, Nolan Pope and Aaron Feudo did was they analyzed years and years of data from West Point college students who are taking introductory classes in economics, calculus, chemistry and other subjects. This is the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Now, students at West Point are randomly assigned classes that are scheduled at different times of the day, which means that some students are taking this introductory class first thing in the morning. Some students are taking the very same class later in the day. The researchers then measure the chance that students would later on choose that subject as their college major.

HAGGAG: We find that students who are randomly assigned to the first period, 7:30 a.m. section, are about 10% less likely to choose the corresponding major compared to a student who takes that class later in the day. We also compared two students who are sitting in the exact same classroom, but one of whom just had a free period as a break before, and the other came from one or more back-to-back classes. We find that each additional back-to-back class reduces the likelihood that that student enrolls in the major by about 12%.

GREENE: This is kind of crazy to think about, Shankar. Something as random as when a class is scheduled can really have an impact on whether a student thinks of the subject as being a good fit for them long term?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And, you know, this might affect professional choices down the road as well. Now, Haggag and his colleagues are not saying that this is the only thing that determines whether a student picks a major or not. It's a small factor, but it's an important factor. And the thing that actually is important here is that most people are not thinking about this. Universities and schools and colleges are not thinking when they're scheduling classes.

But it turns out that if you actually want to boost the number of students taking a certain major, you might want to pay attention to the scheduling. And on a bigger note, I think the study really points to the idea that we reach all kinds of conclusions - about professors, about politicians, maybe even about our partners - because of these extraneous factors that have nothing to do with the people we're actually thinking about.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always for this.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can listen to more of his work on his podcast, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.