Workshop on “Abundance, Consumption and Happiness”

All day
The University of Chicago Center in Beijing
Culture Plaza 20th Floor
59A Zhongguancun Street
Haidian District, Beijing, 100872


Understanding how and why people make decisions has countless applications, from predicting consumption behavior to promoting happiness. To contribute to the field of decision-making psychology, the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and the Chinese Psychological Society’s Decision Psychology Committee hosted a conference on June 8, 2018 entitled “Happiness and Decision-Making Psychology in Our Modern Era.” The conference brought together over 80 scholars (professors and students) from universities in the US and China, and featured 9 presentations.

Christopher K. Hsee, the Theodore O. Yntima Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who initiated and co-organized the conference, gave the opening remarks. Professor Hsee spoke about the importance of the field of decision-making psychology, noting that so far four Nobel prizes have been awarded to scholars of psychology-related research, and all of their work is related to decision-making psychology.

Previous research has classified decision-makers as either maximizers, those who strive to get the best out of every decision, or satisficiers, those who are pleased to settle for a good enough option. In order to better understand why maximizers and satisficers behave the way they do, Li Hong and Luan Mo, a professor and a Ph.D. student from Tsinghua University Department of Psychology, presented their research on the motivations that lead people to become either maximizers or satisficers. Beginning with why maximizers will exhaust more resources to gain additional choices even though doing so leaves them with a feeling of regret. Drawing upon Taoist philosophy, they argued that it was the belief in an “objective best,” more so than an inherent difference between maximizers and satisficers, that caused this Maximization Paradox to occur. They concluded by emphasizing, in line with Taoist Philosophy, how realizing that nothing is absolute eliminates the existence of an objectively right or wrong decision, and can allow decision-makers to feel better about their choices. Having gained a better understanding of why maximizers behave the way they do, their second presentation sought to understand why satisficers will seemingly “settle” for the good enough choice. The results of their experiments concluded that satisficers still want to maximize the value of their choices, but also care about how much effort is required. In this way, the “good enough” option is a compromise between desirability, or maximizing the utility of choice, and feasibility, or minimizing the effort required to make the choice. The utility of their research becomes apparent when applied to marketing, for example: a product with high value but low feasibility would likely not be profitable. Their concluding statements emphasized this fact and encouraged the audience to also find a healthy balance between desirability and feasibility.

Continuing with the theme of practicality, two presenters discussed their research on the material applications of decision-making psychology in order to help the audience better understand the impact it can have on improving China’s collective national health. First, Xing Cai, a professor at Remin University, applied decision-making psychology to China’s declining birthrates and aging population. Professor Xing argued that, given the impact that these impending issues can have on the nation’s social and economic future, more accurately understanding and measuring women’s fertility is extremely important. After conducting three experiments, Xing’s hypothesis, based in cognitive dissonance theory, was confirmed. They found that when women felt that their ability to bear children was limited by their age, their desire to reproduce increased. Xing used these findings to craft policy recommendations, such as including information about a woman’s remaining time to be suitable for childbirth during her annual physical examination, as possible solutions to the country’s declining birthrates. In order to apply decision-making psychology to a broader demographic, Wang Xiaozhuang, a professor at the Tianjin Normal University Institute of Psychology and Behavior, discussed how the anchoring effect, or the human tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information they encounter, could be used to boost the efficacy of things such as the “Healthy China 2030” plan. Wang pointed out issues that the elderly face, such as depression and declining mental health, and issues teenagers face, such as poor self-control and weak will, and underscored the importance of programs that could remedy them. After examining the effects that positive nostalgia had on the emotional state of the elderly and the impact that persistence interventions can have in youth sports, they concluded that, generally speaking, fine anchors are more effective at inducing stronger anchoring effects than coarse anchors. Wang left the audience with the message that the anchoring effect could be utilized by government or privately run programs to positively impact the nation’s mental and physical health.

Two of the conference’s presentations took this practicality one step further and sought to pre-emptively predict how people will behave in order to better optimize, anticipate, and account for their actions. First, to better understand how small groups of decision-makers will behave, Luan Shenghua from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences spoke about his research which applied the Condorcet Jury Theorem (CJT), which analyzes the probability of a group of individuals arriving at a correct decision, to crowds tasked with making multiple decisions of varying difficulty. After several experiments, Luan concluded that, contrary to the CJT, crowd accuracy does not always increase concomitantly with size in the context of multiple decisions. He also concluded that small committees, of around nine members, are fairly effective at making the right decision. Luan argued that, given the number of small committees tasked with making important decisions (the Supreme Court, corporate executive boards, etc), his research is useful for understanding how to create committees to best extract the collective wisdom of the crowd. Taking a more biological approach, Li-Lin Rao, also from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, presented her twin fMRI studies which examined the genetic contribution to variations in risk taking in order to estimate the heritability of risk-taking behavior in young adults. After conducting studies on twins using the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), a computerized measure of risk taking behavior, Li-Lin found that the genetic influence on risk-taking behavior increases with age, culminating in a 41% heritability for risk-taking in young adult twins. She concluded by discussing the importance of her research as a preliminary step towards “identifying endophenotypes for psychopathologies” which could help scientists better understand, predict, and combat behaviors such as substance abuse, addiction, and psychopathological gambling.

Li Jian, from the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Peking University, also presented on the intersection between biology and decision-making psychology, arguing that mental behavior relies on the body’s physiological foundation. His presentation, “The Cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying greed,” sought to distinguish risk aversion from loss aversion. To do so, Jian introduced some neuroscientific research methods and defined dispositional greed as the tendency to always want more and never be satisfied with what one currently has. They looked at some characteristics of greedy people such as believing that one can never have too much money, or believing that “more is better.” Jian also utilized the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale, which describes impulsiveness as “predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions,” and found that tendencies towards impulsiveness and greed are positively correlated. Ultimately, their conclusions uncovered the “black box” of the brain and contributed to a better understanding of greedy behavior.

Later, Wang Yilu and Xie Xiaofei, presenters from the School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences at Peking University, set out to understand why “incomplete help,” or when a helper is unable to fully assist in completing a task, often leaves the helper feeling dissatisfied. After several studies, they concluded that while recipients of incomplete help are generally of the mindset that “it’s the thought that counts, helpers place more value on the outcome of their help. In the case of incomplete help, they tend to underestimate how much it is appreciated, which ultimately leaves them feeling unsatisfied with their work. They concluded by arguing that better understanding how helpers perceive incomplete help is important because it would allow them to both better incentivize and increase the satisfaction of helpers.

Professor Hsee gave the last presentation of the conference, entitled “From Theory to Life; From China to the World.” He emphasized that the work of researchers in China should be applied to help resolve real-life issues and to better understand universal human psychology. He discussed how he has aspired to make his research meet what he refers to as the “GDP” criteria, namely, “Grandma does not already know it, Dad can understand it, and People can benefit from it.” He presented two experiments to illustrate GDP in action. The first was conducted in a large clothing market in China which, in his words, “demonstrated the effectiveness of a choice-architecture-based strategy to mitigate merchant vendors’ discrimination against physically-unattractive customers.” His second experiment examined value sensitivity and indicated that an individual’s happiness with certain attributes will not depend on social comparison when they have an innate physiological or psychological way to evaluate it (i.e. room temperature), but that their happiness will depend on social comparison when they do not have an innate way to evaluate it (i.e. the value of jewelry). He concluded by arguing that, “these findings have implications for how to maintain and increase happiness in a world of increasing abundance.”

After the conclusion of the presentations, an open dialogue began between the students and the presenters. The dialogue, which allowed students and professors to discuss their personal research experiences and deliberate over what constitutes a valuable research idea, perfectly embodied the University of Chicago Center in Beijing’s mission. The Center feels incredibly fortunate to have hosted a conference that both promoted the sharing of ideas among scholars from the US and China while also helping to inspire the next generation of researchers in the ever-developing field of decision-making psychology.


Michael Hellie
UChicago '22