Dr. Norbert Schwarz co-directs the Dornsife Center for Mind and Society at the University of Southern California (with Dr. Daphna Oyserman) where he is a Provost’s Professor of Psychology. He has worked expansively: with big ideas that cut across the disciplines of the Social Sciences and across institutions in Germany and the United States. While there are many projects with which Dr. Schwarz and his colleagues have been involved, he tends to be most cited for his studies relating to well-being and how states of emotion can influence decision-making processes. Others might know him best for his scholarly work on methodological instruments and how the construction of questions and surveys can so powerfully alter how people respond to them. Or maybe he is best known for his work on fluency and how rapid understanding and retrieval of concepts can shape their representation. Or maybe it is something else entirely in which you might’ve come across Dr. Schwarz’s research.
Dr. Schwarz introduces himself:
In this first excerpt, Dr. Schwarz describes a little about his parents and the region in which he grew up in southwestern Germany (about 1:30). As he describes, if everything had gone according to his parent’s plan, he might have eventually become a bank clerk!
One could learn quite a lot about Dr. Schwarz from his childhood. In this next excerpt he describes his experience in school in a manner that dramatically sketches the rise of his indomitable intellect and independence. He recalled the heart condition that cast a shadow over his activities from years 8-14, his involvement with protests and rebellion against the authoritarian approach of his school, and eventually leaving home at 16 to live/work independently and complete his early education before heading to university. (About 4:10):
With some wry humor and amusement, Dr. Schwarz recalls his formative introduction to Psychology, cross-disciplinary Social Science research, and the methods of experimentation during his education at the University of Mannheim (Dipl. of Sociology in 1977, D.Phil in Soc & Psych in 1980). There were ongoing debates between sociology and psychology theorists, objective and subjective assessments, cognitive and decision-making models, and all of this surrounded and engaged young Norbert. All of this and the historical growth of the Social Indicators movement is recalled in this next excerpt from our conversation (about 5 min):
As Dr. Schwarz recalled, the University of Mannheim was relatively new and the programs in social sciences were progressive and extremely active. They welcomed regular visiting scholars and the students and faculty of that program would regularly find and work with influential scholars bringing that knowledge back to Mannheim. In terms of clarifying some of the history and the emergence of research on Judgments and Decision making and the related topics in Social Cognition in the 1980’s, here is a wonderful recollection from Dr. Schwarz. He and a fellow student/collaborator, Fritz Strack, found themselves in a fortunate position in 1980 to draw on some of the most critical theoretical approaches taking hold in Psychology. In this excerpt, Dr. Schwartz recalls some of this history in late 1979 into the early 1980’s at Mannheim (about 2:30):
Here is one more excerpt from my conversation with Dr. Schwartz in which he recalled some of his major findings and theoretical constructs. He approached the research in a kind of quirky manner that worked out really well for him: the research in his program was unified using the outcome, the dependent variable. Any method was useful, any type of manipulation as long as it helped he and his colleagues to understand how people evaluated their lives. What they found are some profound effects that clarify how people define their own well-being, and the standards that they use to experience well-being. This included everything from the current weather (which only matters if you are not really paying attention to it but just experiencing the effects of it) to whether you are recalling recent or past events of your life. Thinking about recent good things, or distant bad things tends to cause people to evaluate their lives as going well. Recent bad events and long past good events cause one to evaluate their lives and happiness as worse. There’s a lot for him to describe over couple of decades of research, but here are a few of those big findings (about 5:15)
Kind of astounding, isn’t it? Life satisfaction and one’s very happiness may have very little to do with objective social indicators like wealth, education, etc. In any given moment some of the most salient indicators of your mood and assessment of happiness will reflect the good or bad events of your life (and whether they are current are in your past), and a whole of assortment of contextual factors in your environment including the weather!
There is much more to Dr. Schwarz’ life and research and I look forward to sharing more in the book! For much more on his research, you’ll find a bunch of it here:
Photo credit to Peter Zhou of USC!