The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Stand-Up Comedy Fan Who Says We Shouldn’t Be So Focused on the Future

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.
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ED O’BRIEN, 28, SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY

(Photo: Ed O'Brien)

(Photo: Ed O'Brien)

“People spend too much time thinking about good things in life,” Ed O’Brien says, “and too little time actually experiencing them.”

O’Brien, a social psychologist, studies how we can do the former more accurately and the latter more often.

At 28, he’s been an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business for almost a year. He teaches "Managing in Organizations," a class that draws on psychology and economics research to teach MBA students to manage their work environments.

Before he was a UChicago professor, he was a University of Michigan doctoral student. For his dissertation, he researched the downsides of optimism: “It undermines enjoyment for current pleasures and distorts how people plan for impending emotional distress.”

"Pay attention to things that make you laugh. Good comedians are also good psychologists—they have a way of tapping into general human experiences, revealing what’s true for a majority of people."

O’Brien was raised in New Jersey and went to high school and college in Philadelphia. He took a lot of psychology classes. Most of the clinical and neuroscience ones felt “like mere warehouses of memorization.” But social psychology was different: “It was like learning a general lens from which to view the world. I came to deeply appreciate that a person’s behavior is often driven more by external circumstances than by his or her internal intentions. For example, if people don’t vote, help, or cooperate, it may mean that situational forces—fatigue, confusion—are getting in the way and not that they don’t want to vote, help, or cooperate.”

Appreciating the power of the situation helped him understand so much. “I couldn’t unsee the world this way, once I saw it in terms of situational forces that enable or inhibit what people are capable of,” he says. “So I became a social psychologist to figure out how people can control such forces.”

Today, in addition to teaching, he’s a prolific researcher whose findings have wide implications. Among them: How much we enjoy an experience depends less on the experience itself and more on how we think about it.

An objectively great vacation, for instance, can be ruined by over-thinking it. O’Brien asked a set of travelers-to-be to list a handful of exciting things about an upcoming trip and also asked a similar group to list many exciting things. Those who listed many exciting things ended up feeling worse about the trip. “Filling up a long list of positives is hard to do,” he says, “so people infer that the event must not be so great after all.”

In another study, he found that the last that we experience in a sequence—like a chocolate in a box or a song at a concert—tends to be our favorite, even if we wouldn’t have cared for it were it in the middle of the pack. Apparently, people assume that the best is saved for last, even when it isn’t.

O’Brien also researches something called desensitization bias. Working off well-established knowledge that over-exposure to fun things leads to liking them less, he proved that desensitization also undermines our ability to think about how others would experience that event. People who read the same joke many times, for example, become less willing to tell it to friends who’ve never heard the joke, “even though first-time others would have found it quite funny.”

“Similarly,” O’Brien says, “participants who were overexposed to annoying noise failed to see why it would be painful for a first-time listener, thus reducing their empathy. In other words, ‘If it’s boring for me, I think it must be boring for you too,’—even if you’re experiencing it for the first time.”

Another of O’Brien’s findings is this: “People take their futures a lot more seriously than they remember their pasts. When we imagine our future self, we see someone who’s very rational, calculating, driven by logic. But when we see our past self, we remember someone who was caring, sensitive, emotional, reactive.”

Future-oriented people, then, are better at self-control tasks, whereas those who are past-oriented get lots more enjoyment out of “hedonic” experiences.

“This is important,” O’Brien says, “because so many people have an excessive focus on the future when pursuing their goals. This could actually hurt our ability to enjoy things.” He recommends asking, “What would my past self do?” as a strategy to help us savor our lives.

O’Brien is a big fan of stand-up comedy. He credits many of his research ideas to Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, and George Carlin. “Pay attention to things that make you laugh,” he says. “Good comedians are also good psychologists—they have a way of tapping into general human experiences, revealing what’s true for a majority of people.”

When asked his life philosophy, O’Brien, ever the Jersey boy, quotes the Boss: “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny,” adding this for context: “It’s easy to lose perspective in the midst of dealing with day-to-day annoyances but I try to keep in mind the absurdity of it all in a Carl Sagan ‘grand scheme’ kind of way. Our time is, in some sense, hilariously brief.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).

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