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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Marie Hennecke and Maike Luhmann

15.04.2019, by Tina Keil in grant report

University of Zürich, Switzerland; Project: “Beliefs about the malleability of life satisfaction and their effects”

Marie Hennecke (left) and Maike Luhmann
Marie Hennecke (left) and Maike Luhmann

Beliefs can have strong effects on people´s behavior. For example, students who believe that their intelligence is something they can increase invest more effort into developing their skills and are more successful in coping with academic failure than students who believe that their intelligence is fixed (e.g., Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Paunesku et al., 2015); and students who believe that emotions are malleable show better socio-emotional adjustment during the transition to college (Tamir, John, Srivastava, & Gross, 2007; see Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013, for a meta-analytic review on the effects of implicit beliefs on self-regulation). More generally, beliefs about whether a certain state of affairs is under one’s control or not have been shown to predict a broad range of behavioral outcomes, from interpersonal relations (Fincham, Bradbury, & Grych, 1990), to health behaviors (Lewis & Daltroy, 1990; McAuley & Duncan, 1990), and even international conflict (Betancourt, 1990).

In this project, my collaborator Maike Luhmann (Ruhr University Bochum, Germany) and I investigated the role of people's beliefs about the extent to which their life satisfaction is malleable and in their own hands. In our view, people who believe that their life satisfaction is indeed something they can change, should be more motivated to take their lives in their own hands and pursue personal goals aimed at improving their lives. In turn, they should also report higher actual levels of life satisfaction. So far, we conducted two studies, each with more than 230 participants, aimed at (1) establishing a method for measuring beliefs about the malleability of life satisfaction and at (2) showing associations of these beliefs with indicators of agency and life satisfaction.

In the first study, we used items modelled after Dweck's (1999) scales that measure beliefs about the malleability of personality or intelligence. Some of our own sample items were “Whether you are satisfied with your life or not is deeply ingrained in your personality. You cannot change it very much.” (recoded) or “You can always substantially change how satisfied you are with your life.”

The results were surprising: Beliefs about the malleability of one's life satisfaction did not correlate with any of our outcome measures, neither with participants' reported life satisfaction, nor with the extent to which their goals were aimed at stabilizing or changing their life circumstances. In hindsight, it seemed to us that the scale might have been too unspecific: While people may differ in their beliefs that life satisfaction is something that is or is not malleable, for these beliefs to predict agency and life satisfaction, they would also have to believe that (1 they are themselves capable of changing their life circumstances, and that (2) such changes in life circumstances have a long-lasting effect on their life satisfaction.

In the second study, we therefore refined our assessment of beliefs. We assessed participants' beliefs about the extent to which they were in control of their life circumstances (locus of control, Rotter, 1966), their beliefs about the extent to which life circumstances were of major importance to a person's life satisfaction, and their beliefs about whether effects of life circumstances on life satisfaction were only temporary or more long-lived (set point theory).

As expected, feeling in control of one's life circumstances was positively related to participants' reported life satisfaction. The other results were, once again, more surprising. The more strongly participants believed that life satisfaction is a matter of life circumstances, the lower was their life satisfaction. And the more strongly they believed that their life satisfaction had a setpoint to which it naturally returned, the higher was their life satisfaction.

The finding that thinking that life circumstances do not matter much sets you up for higher life satisfaction certainly requires some more thought on our behalf. And given that these findings are based on correlations, we cannot causally interpret them. It could just as well be the case that people with high levels of life satisfaction tend to believe that their circumstances have little to do with these high levels. Maybe people wish to feel that they earned their happiness and are themselves the cause of it rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. That these circumstances are, to some degree, already caused by themselves, is a notion that many participants may ignore.

Thanks to EASP, we were able to set up a collaboration on a new and interesting research project. With its unexpected results, it certainly requires replication. As originally planned, we will furthermore follow-up on the correlational results with an experiment.


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