Speaking in public is a live wire act — and even the most accomplished presenters sometimes make mistakes. Here, Dan Gilbertsets the record straight.
Lottery winners and paraplegics
The first mistake occurred when I misstated the facts about the 1978 study by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman on lottery winners and paraplegics.
I said, “…a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.” In fact, the two groups were not equally happy: Although the lottery winners (M=4.00) were no happier than controls (M=3.82), both lottery winners and controls were slightly happier than paraplegics (M=2.96).
So why has this study become the poster child for the concept of hedonic adaptation? First, most of us would expect lottery winners to be much happier than controls, and they weren’t. Second, most of us would expect paraplegics to be wildly less happy than either controls or lottery winners, and in fact they were only slightly less happy (though it is admittedly difficult to interpret numerical differences on rating scales like the ones used in this study). As the authors of the paper noted, “In general, lottery winners rated winning the lottery as a highly positive event, and paraplegics rated their accident as a highly negative event, though neither outcome was rated as extremely as might have been expected.” Almost 40 years later, I suspect that most psychologists would agree that this study produced rather weak and inconclusive findings, but that the point it made about the unanticipated power of hedonic adaptation has now been confirmed by many more powerful and methodologically superior studies. You can read the original study here.
The case of Moreese Bickham
The second mistake occurred when I told the story of Moreese Bickham. I said, “He spent 37 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn’t commit. He was ultimately exonerated, at the age of 78, through DNA evidence.” First, whether Mr. Bickham did or did not commit the crime is debatable. His attorney tells me that he believes Mr. Bickham was innocent, the state evidently believed otherwise, and I am no judge. Second, Mr. Bickham was not exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence, but rather, was released for good behavior after serving half his sentence.
How I managed to mangle these facts is something I still scratch my head about. Bad notes? Bad sources? Demonic possession? Sorry, I just don’t remember. But while I got these ancillary facts wrong, I got the key facts right: Mr. Bickham did spend 37 years in prison, he did utter those words upon his release, and he was (and apparently still is) much happier than most of us would expect ourselves to be in such circumstances. You can read about him here.
The irreversible condition
The third mistake was a slip of the tongue that led me to say precisely the opposite of what I meant. I said, “… because the irreversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness.” Of course I meant to say reversible, not irreversible, and the transcript of the talk contains the correct word. I hope this slip didn’t stop anyone from getting married.