I am the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Sightlines project. I was trained as a research psychologist specializing in culture, aging, and well-being. The goal of Sightlines aligned perfectly with my own research aims: to understand how Americans stack up in terms of overall wellness. The project specifically targets facets of well-being that are known to predict longevity and that are malleable. This aspect of the project was especially appealing to my sensibilities as a psychologist –the idea that we could figure out what aspect of Americans’ lives were in most need of intervention and actually do something about it. To do so, we need to consider both the characteristics of individuals and the big picture. This is exactly what our Sightlines team has set out to accomplish.
There is a considerable amount of research demonstrating that Americans, relative to other cultural groups (particularly those from East Asian countries) are more likely to engage in analytic thinking.1 Imagine if you will, a fish.2 We can study its specific characteristics: the sheen of its scales, the texture of its fins, the size of its tail. This approach involves focusing in on the fish irrespective of context. In contrast, a holistic style of thinking involves zooming out to see the bigger picture. With this approach, comes an eventual understanding of how various aspects of the fish’s surroundings operate in concert and places the fish in a larger context from which it is largely inseparable. Now, we might see that the sheen of the scales helps the fish blend in or the size of its tail helps it to swim through strong currents. From this standpoint, there really is no use in trying to understand the fish out of water.
A great deal of psychological research uses an analytic approach: we hone in and fine tune a singular mechanism with the aim of not only changing people’s behavior, but understanding how we were able to do so. This design certainly allows for context, albeit in limited ways. One approach is to examine context through lab-based manipulations; some are somewhat representative of actual experiences (e.g., give a speech in front of a panel of strangers), some don’t even come close (e.g., count backwards by sevens and start over every time you make a mistake). Another increasingly popular approach, thanks to the advent of smartphones, is to study naturalistic contexts, or experiences as they unfold in daily life. In doing so, we can measure what and how well people are doing by peering into snippets of their lives. Smart Phone: “Where are you right now?” Participant: “In the doctor’s office.” Smart Phone: “How are you feeling right now?” Respondent: “Bored out of my mind.” By forgoing experimental control (and the ability to make causal claims), this approach captures people’s behavior across many contexts often encountered during a typical day.
Apart from carefully controlled experiments or texting people throughout their day, how else can we examine context? Well, it depends on how you define context. Broadly speaking, context can be anything that may shape our perception of the world, from the waiting room of the doctor’s office to the place we live, to the generation we were born into. These contexts vary in terms of their chronicity, from sitting in a waiting room for an hour (or maybe two, depending on your doctor) to lifelong identification with a social group. When I first learned about the Sightlines project, I was impressed by how it made broad contextual strokes of the research brush, characterizing multiple generations over decades (not to mention its use of multiple, nationally representative surveys). The aim and scope of the project aligned so well with my background in cultural and adult developmental psychology and my priority as a research scientist to not only study people, but the multiple contexts in which they reside –without which they cannot be fully understood.
So what’s next for Sightlines? Moving forward, we ultimately want to leverage what we know about how Americans are doing today to benefit future generations. To provide a comprehensive picture, however, we need to understand whether the trends we have characterized by generation and time persist for all Americans regardless of context, and under which contexts these trends diverge. An obvious first step towards this goal is to examine trends by ethnicity, gender, education, income, marital status, and U.S. state. To this end, we will distill the data by demographic subgroups and share the findings on our new website. In early 2017, we will release an addendum Sightlines report showcasing these data.
We chose these groups as a starting point because they were the ones most consistently assessed across the datasets with which we have to work. There are many groups that are commonly overlooked in these surveys –for some, it may be because no one thought to ask (e.g., sexual orientation) and for others, it may be that the group is unlikely to participate (e.g., those with chronic illness). This led us to an obvious second step, for which our aim is twofold: 1. Explore existing studies that may not be nationally representative, but provide us with a window into the lives of under-represented Americans; 2. Conduct an inclusive survey in which we oversample under-represented groups.
These steps only scratch the surface; there will be much more to come over the next year. For now, I just want to share how thrilled I am to be a part of such meaningful work and I very much look forward to sharing more with you as this project evolves!
1 Ji, L. J., & Yap, S. (2016). Culture and cognition. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 105-111.
2 Masuda T., Nisbett R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 922-934.