A.J. Jacobs is a journalist/author who does “life experiments” and writes about his experiences. His third book was published last month and he also has a day job as an editor at Esquire magazine in New York. I decided to blog about his experiments because they very nicely illustrate some extremely useful general psychological principles (which I’ll explain).
In his latest book each chapter is about a different month long life experiment. The experiments are things like “uni-tasking” which was a month in which he experimented with not doing any multitasking. In addition to only doing one thing at a time he tried to keep his thoughts focused on whatever one thing he was doing at the time he was doing it. Another month long experiment was “radical honesty” in which he experimented with saying the complete truth about whatever was on his mind (and suffering the social consequences!).
Here are what I consider to be the important psychological concepts you can learn from life experiments
1. Behaviour causes changes in beliefs/thoughts and feelings
For example, one of A.J’s experiments was to do do everything his wife wanted for a month (to reward her for tolerating all his other experiments!). When we willingly do nice things for others (behaviour), our brains tend to make the assumptions “I must be a nice/kind/generous person” and “I must like the person I’m doing caring actions for -> they must be a good person”. These thoughts feel good, promote future positive behaviour and strengthen relationships. You might already have positive beliefs about yourself and the other person but the caring behaviour strengthens the beliefs.
Another example of thoughts following actions was a year long experiment in which A.J. followed the rules of the Bible (which he wrote about in an earlier book called “The Year of Living Biblically”). Even though A.J. remained agnostic, he found that praying regularly (which was part of the experiment), made him feel more spiritual.
If you can understand the principle that thoughts and feelings tend to “catch up to” actions you can see when this might be causing wanted or unwanted consequences in your life. e.g. When you repeatedly avoid something, over time and repeated avoidances, whatever you’ve been avoiding seems more and more scary, difficult to cope with, and dangerous. And, you feel increasingly powerless and out of control.
I wrote a previous blog post about how the concept of behaviour causing changes in thoughts and feelings relates to treatment for psychological problems – here
2. Doing novel activities (e.g. life experiments) stimulates the neurotransmitter Dopamine, which tends to feel good.
3. A.J. is often surprised about the unanticipated psychological benefits he gets from experiments.
For example, he felt much less anxious than usual during the uni-tasking experiment and he became much more aware of what specific thoughts he was having at the time he was having them.
Trying behaviour changes often has flow on effects that we don’t predict e.g. changes in thinking, feelings, future behaviour, and other people’s reactions to us. Part of the reason people repeat behaviours that are keeping them stuck and unhappy is because often its not until after we’ve tried alternative behaviours that we understand the benefits.To a large extent discovering the potential benefits of a new behaviour requires trying the new behaviour and seeing what happens.
4. There is something to be said for being “open to experience”.
Related to above – some of A.J’s experiments don’t work out or have aspects that are uninteresting or unpleasant.
When you keep doing the same thing, the consequences are more predictable than when you try new things.
Discovering new amazing life experiences involves tolerating that sometimes you’ll try things that don’t work out.
I’ll write some ideas for week long life experiments in a future blog post (out of time right now).
You can watch a video of a recent hour long talk A.J. gave about his experiments at the link below
Video link – http://fora.tv/2009/09/16/My_Life_As_An_Experiment_AJ_Jacobs
If you have difficulty watching it due to slow internet you can download either the audio or video version using the download tab above the video.
If you’re interested in the books
You can also get the audiobook versions of two of AJ Jacobs’s books for free using the offer described here (important to read my comment that some audiobooks are only available if you list the US as your address. I’m not sure about these ones).
Or, here are Amazon links
The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible