The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Troy Campbell

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Troy Campbell. (Photo: Ty Milford)

Troy Campbell. (Photo: Ty Milford)

Troy Campbell likes to see people happy.

"Making another person smile," he says, "comes from knowing who they are and what they need. If you know those things, you can make people's dreams come true in little ways every day."

Campbell has devoted his life to brightening people's days. This drive took him through his Ph.D. program at Duke University, where he became Dan Ariely’s protégé, and it took him to the University of Oregon, where he's just taken a tenure-track job.

Campbell describes his body of research in simple terms (Ariely calls that research "just amazing"): "I study what people love, like, and find most important." For Campbell, the answers include favorite hobbies, cherished beliefs, and what he calls "the state of feeling nerdy." Campbell focuses, essentially, on how humans can enjoy life more, and also how humans can be better humans.

No surprise, then, that Campbell really—like, really—loves people. "My friends once laughingly told me that my hobby was 'them,'" he says. "And they're right. My favorite thing to do is just something that my friends enjoy."

He grew up in a relaxed Southern California beach town called San Clemente, a place that instilled in him a persistent belief that everything is going to be OK. "People were great to me," he recalls. "I ended up with so many different friends. And I was always having fun with different types of people from every clique, which drove my interest in enjoyment."

Campbell won the top science award in his high school, but he also won "most likely to join the circus" for his general enthusiastic demeanor—and for doing backflips off walls.

He didn't travel far for college: As a freshman at the University of California–Irvine, he signed up for a social psychology class, then realized the professor was Peter Ditto, the father of one of his best friends. "I'd spent many afternoons at his house," Campbell says. "I never knew he was a social psychologist."

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

Campbell fell in love with the subject: "It showed people as these fragile creatures with insecurities and irrationalities. It was about everyday people, their beliefs and identities, what makes them like things, hate things, and what affects their choices."

He declared psychology as his major and became Ditto's research assistant.

His senior year, Campbell took a class in UC–Irvine's prestigious creative writing program. The professor assigned students to read two stories before each class: one by a fellow student, the other by a famous author. Half of each class was spent workshopping the student's piece; the other half was for discussing the established work's greatness.

"We always assumed that the student's work needed improvement and assumed the brilliance of the established work," Campbell says. "Then one day we workshopped a student's work that the professor intensely criticized as 'too ambiguous.' Five minutes later, we discussed a work that the professor gushingly praised as 'wonderfully ambiguous.'"

Campbell pointed out the placebo effect he was observing: "Might I suggest that if we read the student's work assuming its brilliance, we would have also found it 'wonderfully ambiguous?'" The professor looked at him with disdain, and a class-wide argument ensued. A few others nodded in agreement with Campbell but the class' "elites" joined the professor in denying such a placebo effect.

A week later, Campbell had dropped the class and started an experiment that would become the crux of his dissertation. He took a story that he wrote himself and gave it to average people to read, telling some that it was by a great author, and telling others that it was by a bad writer. Then he made them take a test that "told" them whether they were literary experts. Those who were randomly informed that they were experts thought the work was better when Campbell said it was by a great author. Those informed they were not experts didn't display as much of a difference in opinion between the "great" and the "bad" author.

"Defending the superiority of the elites was not just something they believed in," Campbell says. "It was something they wanted to believe. The perception of the works had to do with so much more than the words on the paper. It had also so much to do with the reader's identity and beliefs."

Even though he was doing noteworthy research and pursuing things he loved, Campbell remembers being "a mess" his senior year. The problem was that he was interested in too many things. He couldn't continue to be all the people he wanted to be. He opened up about this to Ditto, who handed him a book: Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.

"I raced home every day from class just to sit in my apartment and read the book," Campbell remembers. "I forced myself to read it slower because I wanted to savor the awakening experience."

In Ariely, Campbell saw "a man who was a scientist but who got to explore so many 'alternative selves.' His work spanned so many topics from identity to irrationality to enjoyment to politics to business to art. And he was a great storyteller. He was quirky and snarky and breathtaking all at once. He was everything I wanted to be. And so I set off to become part of this field."

Before long, Campbell was headed to Duke—Ariely had agreed to be his advisor. (His first assignment was to become a Disney Imagineer and run experiments in theme parks.)

During graduate school, Campbell fleshed out his dissertation, which effectively proved that if you make people feel like they're good at something—poetry, drinking wine, whatever—they'll enjoy doing it more.

"The takeaway," he says, "is that businesses shouldn't just make great products. They should make people feel great at using the products. Good art museums don't just show you good art, they make you feel artsy. Disney succeeds not because it is magical but because it makes you feel magical. It makes you feel some expertise at imagination and the brand Disney itself. It fosters that intermixing joy cocktail of expertise, efficacy, and nerdiness."

This strategy can also be applied to nobler goals. To get people to act more environmentally responsible, for example, you don't do it by telling them that it's important but by making them feel like they're already good at acting that way.

"Most of my work leans toward helping people feel good about themselves," Campbell says, "so they end up having good experiences and doing good things."

In late 2014, one of Campbell's findings went viral, becoming Duke's most viewed press release, getting more than 1,400 comments on Reddit, and coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Campbell describes the finding in two words: solution aversion. "We showed that people deny problems like climate change," he says, "not just because they dislike the problems but because they dislike the solutions." Climate skepticism, it turns out, has more to do with being opposed to the solution—increased government regulation—than with the science itself.

Sometimes, when Campbell would come to his advisor with ideas to pursue, Ariely would cut him off, saying, "That's a smart idea but it's not a big idea."

"Dan knows that in our lifetime we only get to tell a limited number of stories via research," Campbell says, "so we should strive to make them big, and useful. Today I spend lots of time on lifeguard towers looking at sunsets and sitting on the ruins of this old mill in this Lord of the Rings–like forest, surrounding myself in grandeur and trying to imbue my ideas with that sense."

"If I have one skill," he continues, "it is my ability to see how social psychology can provide immediate value. I've seen the smiles and the good that quality research can bring people."

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