Nothing is ever certain, says the psychologist Ellen Langer. We should make the most of that.
Last summer Ellen J. Langer posted an entry on her Psychology Today blog that caused a minor uproar. A friend had just described a group trip taken to India, many years earlier. “They met a guru and asked a bystander to take a picture of them with him,” wrote Langer, a prominent social psychologist and a professor at Harvard University. “Two pictures were taken, using two different cameras.” Yet when the film was developed, the guru—who had been standing in the middle—was missing from both photographs.
Langer didn’t speculate why—she didn’t propose, say, that the guru had reached a state of such spiritual purity that light passed through him. Her point was this: No amount of evidence would be enough to persuade most scientists of paranormal phenomena, because too many of them were “stuck in soon-to-be-outdated theories.” Rather than ignore data that don’t fit those theories, she said, “we need to open our minds to possibility.”
Commenters scoffed. A fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stanton Peele, was moved to write a long post of his own, headlined, “Ellen, we don’t need more irrationality (you must be a sought-after guest at seances!).” While acknowledging Langer’s “brilliant” career, he urged psychologists to protect their discipline as “a beacon for a commitment to empiricism and reasoning.”
Langer’s response, the next day, was mild: “My last post seems to have upset people,” she wrote. “My intention was to suggest that we keep our minds open to the possibility of new phenomena, but perhaps the example I gave was too far from current beliefs to do the trick.” She sounded a lot like a teacher realizing that she was going too fast for the class.
That’s not unusual. In the course of her 35-year career, Langer has repeatedly flouted convention, confident that (or indifferent to whether) other researchers will eventually catch up with her. A petite, kinetic woman with a turned-up nose and a voice like Lauren Bacall’s, Langer does not tend to ruminate, and her immediate response when told “No,” about anything, is to ask, “Why not?”
Early on she took psychology’s prevailing wisdom about decision-making and turned it on its head, setting the stage for later work by researchers in cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics. She is best known for her concept of “mindfulness”—a term that most researchers use in the context of meditation, but by which Langer means paying attention: consciously looking for what is new and different, and questioning preconceived ideas.
Doing that is more difficult, and more significant, than it sounds. Most of our actions, Langer has shown, are mindless. Mindfulness requires reconsidering everything we think we know. If we did that, she says, all of us could be more effective, more creative, and healthier.
Her research on the effects of mindfulness on physical health, in particular, has had such surprising results that, she acknowledges herself, it “teeters on the edge of believability for some.”
This year the actress Jennifer Aniston will produce and star as Langer in a movie about what is perhaps the most startling of those experiments. It is known as the “counterclockwise study” and lends its name to Langer’s most recent book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books).
In 1979, Langer and her students invited two groups of eight men in their late 70s and early 80s to go on a retreat for a week and spend time reminiscing about life 20 years earlier. “When they first showed up at the office, their daughters usually brought them,” remembers Langer, who was in her early 30s at the time. “They were walking down the hall to my office, and they looked like they were just about to keel over. I remember thinking, What am I getting myself into?”
The researchers took each group of eight for a week at a time to an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., which they had filled with props to make it look as it might have two decades before. The men watched Sgt. Bilko and The Ed Sullivan Show on a black-and-white television and listened to Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole on the radio. All the men (who were used to being taken care of) were encouraged to be active—for example, to help serve meals and clean up.
The first group was instructed to behave as if it really were 1959. Ahead of time, they had written autobiographical statements that stopped in that year. During the week, they spoke in the present tense as they discussed the threat of communism, the Baltimore Colts’ 31-16 defeat of the New York Giants in the NFL championship game, and recently published books.
Men in the control group, which went on a separate retreat, followed a similar program but were permitted to speak of the past as the past. They spent time reflecting on their younger days, while the first group in effect tried to take themselves back in time.
What happened? After just one week, both groups tested better on hearing and memory. The men gained an average of three pounds each, and their grips were stronger. “At the end of all this, I was playing touch football with some of them,” says Langer.
But the changes were especially striking in the first group: Their joints became more flexible and their hands more nimble. Sixty-three percent of them improved on intelligence tests, compared with 44 percent of the control group. And people unaware of the purpose of the study rated every member of the first group younger in photos taken after the retreat than in photos taken before.
“When I first described the study, I was hesitant to spell out just how big the changes were,” says Langer, who wrote about it in her 1989 book, Mindfulness (Addison-Wesley), but did not publish the study in a psychology journal. In a field experiment like this one, lacking the controls of the lab, many factors might have explained the results.
“The most important part of the study,” she says, “was that people who are only supposed to get more debilitated over time showed great improvement—regardless of the reason.”
Langer has come to question whether any medical knowledge—about aging, about diagnosis, about the natural course of diseases—is necessarily true. Medical science is imperfect. Probabilities—that cells are cancerous, for example, or that a person with those cells will survive—are abstract mathematical constructs, she points out: They do not account for outliers, and they are based on a limited number of cases, which are analyzed by fallible human beings, who are making judgment calls.
“I am not arguing against medical tests,” she writes in Counterclockwise. “I am arguing against mindless reliance on them and the mindless state they lead to.”
She is now emboldened to offer an explanation for the results of the counterclockwise study: that the subjects’ mental states had direct, physical effects, an explanation that has been borne out in her subsequent, peer-reviewed research.
Take eye tests. In a group of studies soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Langer and her colleagues showed that people’s vision improved when they expected to see better. In one strikingly simple experiment, the researchers reversed the standard eye chart so that the letters became progressively larger rather than smaller. “Now, rather than expecting as they went down the chart that pretty soon they were not going to be able to read the letters,” Langer says, “people expected that pretty soon they were going to be able to read the letters.” The result: They could read letters that had been too small for them on the standard chart.
Take another scientific given: that to lose weight you must exercise more or eat less. In a recent study, Langer and Alia J. Crum, now a doctoral student at Yale University, got hotel housekeepers who reported doing little or no exercise to recognize the physical nature of their jobs: telling half of a group of 84 that their days spent bending, stretching, and lifting were similar to workouts at a gym. Four weeks later, those 42 chambermaids had lost an average of two pounds each, reduced their percentage of body fat, and lowered their blood pressure—all while reporting no changes in eating habits, even less physical activity during their off hours, and (according to their bosses) the same level of work.
As in the men’s retreat and the eyesight study, it seemed that people’s states of mind were changing their bodies. “The main idea for all these studies is very simple,” Langer says. “We take the mind and the body and we put them back together, so that wherever we’re putting the mind, we’re necessarily putting the body.”
When she started to explore the mind-body connection, most psychologists had long accepted the Cartesian split between the two. (So had doctors, although a cardiologist named Herbert Benson had published research just a few years before on what he called “the relaxation response,” showing that meditation could lower metabolism and slow heart rate and brainwaves.) Today Langer is not alone in her field. The discovery, in the 1990s, of “mirror neurons” in primates, which fire when animals perform an action and when they see someone performing it, has led neuroscientists to postulate the same structure in human brains. The idea has influenced psychological research on, for example, empathy and social cognition. Others have written about the spirit and consciousness as products of the body—notably Antonio Damasio in his 1994 book, Descartes’ Error. And, of course, the placebo effect in medicine is well established.
But while a placebo causes your mind to act on your body without your knowing about it, Langer is interested in how people might consciously create physical effects—including some that they never would have expected.
Langer grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., the younger of two daughters in what she describes as a loving middle-class family. As a teenager, she says, she made friends with the popular kids and with the “brains.” Because kids from both groups came to her with their problems, she saw how differently two people might see the same situation. “It showed me how context-dependent evaluation is,” she says. “There’s nothing that I can’t reinterpret.”
She married while still an undergraduate at New York University, where she majored in chemistry with plans to become a doctor. Neither the marriage, which didn’t last, nor the major was a good match. “Every day I’d emerge from lab a different color,” she jokes. “I was doing Jewish chemistry: A little is good, a little more may be better.” She switched to psychology.
While in graduate school at Yale in the early 1970s, she got licensed as a clinician. “But when I was doing clinical work, I’d see that the client could do what needed to be done,” she remembers. “I’d find myself tempted to say, ‘Just do it.’ That’s not good advice.” She decided to pursue research instead.
The work she did for her dissertation is still cited by scholars today. Langer looked at what factors led people to expect success in games of chance. She found that people were less likely to recognize chance for what it was if they were prompted to do things they usually did in games of skill, such as assessing an opponent’s competence or making decisions—like which lottery ticket to choose. In fact, when they had chosen a “lottery ticket” created by Langer’s research team—based on whatever personal associations they had made with the letters on the ticket—they clung to it even when invited to trade it for a ticket in a different lottery, with better odds. Langer dubbed their illogical confidence in winning with the first ticket the “illusion of control.”
Most psychologists at the time worked on the premise that people’s cognitions led them to act in certain ways; Langer flipped that around, showing that people’s cognitions were often based on their behaviors.
She followed that up with a study in which she and two colleagues showed that framing a silly request in a familiar way led people to comply with it. In one of a set of experiments, the researchers sent an interdepartmental memo around the Graduate Center at the City University of New York that contained nothing but the request that it be returned to a designated room. When the memo was designed differently from the typical interdepartmental memo, 60 percent of the recipients returned it; when it looked like a typical memo, 90 percent returned it, in spite of how absurd the request was. In other words, they acted mindlessly, responding to the structure of the memo rather than its content.
“The dominant view of social cognition now is that people behave unthinkingly,” says Anthony G. Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who studies unconscious cognition. “The tide has rather dramatically reversed.”
“Ellen was the harbinger of a later, full-scale effort to understand the unconscious mind,” writes a fellow Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin R. Banaji, in an e-mail message. Banaji says Langer’s work influenced her own well-known research on people’s implicit bias—stereotypes that they are unaware of—and has made waves beyond the field: The mindless clinging of Langer’s subjects to their lottery tickets is an early example of the “endowment effect” posited by behavioral economists, notably Richard H. Thaler, who in the early 1980s challenged standard economics with findings that people place a higher value on an object they own than on one they do not.
Langer’s interest in mindlessness soon led her to ask what its opposite might look like. In the mid-1970s she published two important studies with Judith Rodin, then a professor at Yale and now president of the Rockefeller Foundation. They showed that nursing-home residents who were encouraged to make more choices—such as whether to eat in their rooms or in the dining hall—and were given responsibility for watering a plant became more active, reported being happier, and even lived longer: 18 months later the death rate among the subjects was significantly lower than that of the residents over all.
Langer began to look at how people in all kinds of circumstances, including young, healthy people, could benefit by being more mindful. She has done studies showing that students prompted to question categories think more creatively: Those presented with an object in conditional language (“This could be a dog’s chew toy”) instead of imperative language (“This is a dog’s chew toy”) were likelier to find new uses for it to solve a problem (the chew toy makes a handy eraser). Her research in business has shown that managers who express confidence but admit uncertainty are evaluated more highly by employees. Recently she found that orchestral musicians who played mindfully, focusing on making subtle variations in their performance, were rated more highly than when they tried to recreate their best performance ever.
“Mindful attending, noticing, is enlivening,” says Langer. “People who say they’re bored—with their relationships, for example, or their jobs—that’s because they’re holding it still. They’re confusing the stability of their mind-set with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing.”
The research, much of it gathered in Mindfulness, is considered a precedent for what is now known as positive psychology, a turn in the discipline toward helping already healthy people flourish.
“Her initial work on mindfulness made it possible for scientifically minded researchers to take on that question,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the leaders of positive psychology. “She was bold enough to take it on.”
“The applicability of the counterclockwise study is mind-boggling,” says Jack Demick, a developmental psychologist who teaches at Brown University. He has written about Langer’s concept of mindfulness as a “grand theory” with implications for all branches of psychology.
In the same vein, the psychologist Jerome Bruner compared the boldness of Mindfulness to that of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.
But a reviewer for The Independent, of London, found it less impressive. “If the brain’s function is to filter out a mass of impressions rather than to think them up, perhaps we avoid going mad by sometime being bored and boring,” she wrote.
Wouldn’t following Langer’s instructions to notice everything, and question everything, lead to paralysis? Research by Sian L. Beilock at the University of Chicago, for example, has shown that talented athletes perform worse when they start analyzing every part of their particular skills.
“That’s not mindfulness, that’s evaluating,” Langer says. She is very much against overthinking and has written widely about the ways an “evaluative mind-set” can impede creativity and happiness, particularly in her book On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (Ballantine, 2005). Langer took up painting when she was already in her 50s—she describes hearing herself tell an acquaintance that she was going to paint, before she had really given it any thought—and her artworks now command thousands of dollars.
When she began, she had no interest in taking art classes or trying to learn the proper techniques. Instead she focused on doing what interested her, and found that she got great pleasure from the act of painting itself. She says she paints where the strokes lead her, mindfully attentive to the experience rather than worried about how her work will turn out, and is often surprised by the pictures that result. (Many of her paintings depict friends or her beloved dogs in humorous poses.)
The first time one of her artworks was accepted by a juried show, she writes, “I was thrilled.” But she decided later that she would have been better off realizing that the achievement was not a mark of the painting’s inherent value: That way she wouldn’t have worried so much about repeating her success. (Yes, in spite of herself, she does sometimes care what people think.)
“Studies show that people form evaluations based on their own needs,” Langer writes, “but we tend to accept other people’s evaluations as though they were objective.”
That they are not gives her no little grief when it comes to the end of the semester. “When I have to grade students, it’s torture,” she says. “Grading doesn’t make sense.”
When talking with her Harvard students and lab assistants, Langer comes off as both supremely confident and playful. One day last semester, dressed in dark jeans, sandals, a red shirt, and a fleece vest, she strode into her first lab meeting with a stack of notes, some of them scribbled on Post-its, about the experiments she wanted to start that fall. She had at least a half-dozen, and more occurred to her during the meeting.
“The first one is a study we need to do right away,” she said, taking a chocolate cookie from the package that was being passed around the table. The idea was to photograph people entering and leaving an exhibit that Langer’s partner, Nancy Hemenway, had helped produce of early-1970s style—Marimekko maxidresses, boldly patterned dishes. Langer’s hypothesis: Observers would perceive the exhibitgoers in the “after” photos as younger, because the blast from the past would have literally turned back the clock for them. “Who wants to do it? Come on, it’ll be fun,” she exhorted.
“But it has so many flaws,” said Emily Kroshus, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health who wanted to know what mechanism the study would measure—stress hormones? blood pressure? After a few minutes of back and forth, Langer said it was just a “quick and dirty” study they could attach to her next idea: What if they took people with some condition, say, a rash, and got half of them to reconstruct what life was like the week before the rash. Would it go away? Again, Kroshus was skeptical. “I know you don’t like to think in terms of mechanisms,” she said, “but there are so many factors that could affect this.” She raised the same objection to a third study and suggested something narrower. “Let’s do both,” replied Langer. Repeatedly she urged her team to think big, to be dramatic. Told by another lab member that a contact in the medical school was reluctant to let Langer’s team add some research to a sleep study, she rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to him,” she said. “You make sure I talk to him.”
As with the counterclockwise study, it is more difficult in any field experiment than in the lab to control for the many variables that may affect people’s health. “But there’s a trade-off between rigor and artificiality,” says Greenwald, the psychologist at the University of Washington. “Laboratory experiments have their virtues, and I’m in favor of them. But you don’t compellingly persuade people that you have a phenomenon.”
“If I can make one monkey talk,” says Langer, “then it can be said, ‘Monkeys are capable of speech.'” She calls her approach “the psychology of possibility.”
These days Langer’s lack of interest in the mechanisms underlying behavior is what pushes against the tide of the discipline, which in recent years has been keen to identify the biological activity behind thought processes.
“I see the human being as a seven-layer cake,” she says. “The sixth layer doesn’t cause the fourth layer; they just coexist. That’s not to say neuroscientific approaches are not worthwhile, but even if we know all of Johnny’s neurochemistry and brain circuitry, we don’t know if he’s going to read, rape, or run for office.”
Students say it’s not uncommon for Langer to create experiments out of her everyday life. “She tends to come in with a set of ideas and just throw them out there and see what people think,” says Laura M. Hsu, a lab member and a graduate student in Harvard’s School of Education. “A lot of her work is out of curiosity. She’s so generous—she gives grad students a lot of opportunities to research and publish.”
Hsu is listed as the first author on new research about how cues of age affect people’s health and longevity. In a series of studies, she, Langer, and Jaewoo Chung, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that women who think they look younger after having their hair colored or cut show a decrease in blood pressure and are rated younger in photos, even when the pictures do not show their hair; that people who wear work uniforms (rather than clothes that might indicate their age) are healthier than people in the same income bracket who don’t wear uniforms; that being married to someone younger tends to lengthen life, and being married to someone older tends to shorten it; and that prematurely bald men see themselves as older and therefore age faster. All this adds up to evidence, the researchers assert, that the body may age partly in reaction to “younger” or “older” cues in the environment.
The research will be published this year in Perspectives on Psychological Science but was met with some skepticism by reviewers. Hsu says the journal’s editor, Ed Diener, asked the authors to revise the article to make it more speculative.
“We do recognize that there are probably other explanations,” she says. Bald men, for example, may age faster because of genetic differences that also cause their baldness. “But we’re just trying to germinate this idea.”
Langer is one of the “great social psychologists who do demonstration experiments that ignite a field,” says Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re the hypothesis generators rather than the verificationists.”
Still, Langer’s penchant for sweeping statements, whether about science or life, can sometimes strike a careless note. She can appear to believe that people would never struggle—with learning something new, with making a choice, with finding happiness—if they simply broke free of assumptions and automatic thinking. On the subject of divorce, she has written that if children were taught that families can be composed of a mother, a father, and a child but also of other arrangements, “then there wouldn’t be such a problem were the circumstances to change.”
Pressed, she acknowledges that her own life has had its share of challenges—much greater than trying to grade students. “I was divorced before most people are married,” she says. “I lost my mother [to breast cancer] when I was 29. I had a major fire in ’97 and lost 80 percent of what I owned. I slipped on the ice a few years later and smashed my ankle badly; it’s full of metal pins. The difference is, I don’t like throwing good money after bad.”
And so, she claims, she never experiences regret. “Regret is an illogical emotion. Whatever decisions you made, you made them for a reason, and so you just go from there.” Though she can betray impatience, she very rarely gets angry (her students confirm this). Anger is a tactic of the powerless, Langer believes, and she decided a long time ago that she had the power to do anything she set her mind to. That also takes care of envy: “If you have something, it doesn’t mean I can’t have it, if I learn how.”
She likes to argue that, given enough information and enough practice, she could even learn to control the toss of a coin.
So, does Langer suffer from “the illusion of control” she identified so many years ago? She says she looks at that phenomenon differently today: “When I was at Yale, I was young,” she told a classroom of undergraduates last fall. “I had what is called an observer’s perspective, which is the same perspective psychology had: the assumption that we’re all seeing the same thing. The illusion-of-control study is basically saying that people don’t see that chance is chance.”
“Then I got older and I said, Wait a second, who says that people can’t control things?”
She draws an analogy to Pascal’s wager, substituting “control” for “God”: If you believe you have no control and you truly don’t, “no big deal.” If you believe you have control and it turns out you do, “that’s the big win.” And if you don’t have control but you believe you do, you are actively engaged in something, feeling alive and effective—and you may just be successful someday. “You can’t prove that something is uncontrollable,” Langer says, “All you can show is that things are indeterminate.” The best gamble, then, is to act as if you have control.
She rephrases it with typical bravado: “Nothing is uncontrollable. We just don’t yet know how to control it.”[Jennifer Ruark, The Chronicle]