Building Better Lives & Communities

A video archive of presentations from a CIFAR symposium held September 19, 2013

New ideas in the social sciences are changing our understanding of human behaviour and our ability to achieve collective goals. Through interdisciplinary research into social interactions, identity and wellbeing, CIFAR researchers are framing new understandings of human behaviour, the nature of communities and society, and how policy can better guide human progress.

On September 19, 2013, CIFAR hosted a symposium of international experts who in TED-style presentations shared new insights from their recent discoveries. The symposium attracted social innovators, entrepreneurs, educators, members of the volunteer sector, policy makers, academics in the full spectrum of the social sciences, and those interested in social change and community wellbeing.

We are pleased to share videos of the presentations and keynote address from the day.

Panel 1

The challenges of group identity


How Collective Norms Can Produce or Mediate Climates of Conflict

CIFAR Fellow Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Princeton University

A “climate of conflict” persists when conflict is so widespread and enduring that it resists change. Recent research suggests that climates of conflict in secondary schools are perpetuated by students’ perceptions of what their peers believe to be appropriate or desirable behaviour--in other words, their perception of the school's collective norms. The best way to shift a climate of conflict is to address students’ perceptions of collective norms. This talk describes a recent strategy to map the social network of schools within one American state to understand the spread of social norms, and the capacity for a community to shift its climate.

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Elizabeth Levy Paluck is an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University. Her research examines prejudice and conflict reduction, using large-scale field experiments to test theoretically driven interventions, in addition to the topics of political cultural change and civic education. Her most recent work uses social network analysis to examine how students develop and pass on perceived social norms that allow or that proscribe harassment on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual behaviour or orientation.

Boys left behind: causes, consequences and future prospects

CIFAR Senior Fellow Nicole Fortin, University of British Columbia

Have there been changes over the past thirty-five years in the GPA of high school boys and girls that could be linked to their changing work and educational aspirations? Could these changing aspirations be linked to changes in social norms regarding the roles of men and women? Why should we care about the new gender imbalance in higher education where women now outnumber men?

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CIFAR Senior Fellow Nicole M. Fortin is currently a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests revolve around two themes: labour market institutions, public policies, and wage inequality on the one hand, and gender equality policies and the economic progress of women, on the other. More recently, her work has included methodological innovations and investigations into the importance of attitudes in shaping economic behaviour.

Experiencing discrimination: understanding the psychological consequences for victims

CIFAR Senior Fellow Nyla Branscombe, University of Kansas

Many people assume that members of disadvantaged groups are “overly ready” to attribute negative experiences to discrimination—to play the “victim card.” However, this is generally untrue because it is psychologically painful and socially costly for disadvantaged groups to believe their life outcomes are determined by pervasive discrimination. Studies assessing experiences of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and rejection based on physical disability reveal the negative well-being consequences of perceiving discrimination. Thus by strengthening minority identity and creating a sense of belonging, we can help alleviate the harm of experiencing discrimination

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Nyla Branscombe is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. Her research has focused on two related topics within the general area of the psychology of intergroup relations. She examines how group history affects interpretation and emotional responses to group events in the present. She also studies when awareness of group-based inequality will evoke feelings of collective guilt and motivate the making of reparations to the historically disadvantaged group.
Panel 2

The pitfalls of imperfect decision-making


Why personalized assistance can help: the case for improving academic success

CIFAR Senior Fellow Phil Oreopoulos, University of Toronto

In filling out forms and changing day-to-day routines, the challenge of 'where to begin' often overwhelms and leads to procrastination. In his talk Professor Oreopoulos discusses the often overlooked importance of personal assistance (or 'hand-holding') from someone trusted and experienced to overcome these obstacles to significantly improve well-being. The remarkable increase in post-secondary enrolment from helping parents and youth past the financial aid application is but one example.

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CIFAR Senior Fellow Phil Oreopoulos is a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on particular factors in early stages of a person’s development that contribute to long-run well-being and social-economic success. Some of these factors may be determined by individuals’ own decisions (e.g. choosing whether to drop out of school, how hard to study), or by external circumstances beyond individuals’ control (e.g. living in a poor neighborhood, born into a low-income and low-educated family, graduating in a recession).

Phishing for Phools

Nobel Laureate and CIFAR Senior Fellow George Akerlof, University of California at Berkeley

Professor Akerlof draws from a draft of his current book, Phishing for Phools, which he is writing with Robert Shiller (Yale University), to show how free markets are a powerful force for both good and bad. On the negative side, they systematically aim for our weak spots. They manipulate our emotional or cognitive weaknesses, attempt to block information and exploit our failure to understand that we don't know what we don't know. The talk will show how these insights play out in consumer protection, personal saving and understanding the origins of the current financial crisis.

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George Akerlof is a Nobel Laureate, the Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a Senior Fellow of The Brookings Institution. His most important research initiative in recent years has involved bringing a new point of view into economics that incorporates some of the most important concepts in classical sociology, including identity, prescriptions (or norms), ideal types, and social categories (or reference groups).


The psychology of scarcity: Why having too little means so much

CIFAR Senior Fellow Eldar Shafir, Princeton University

Featuring insights from research published in his new book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013), Professor Shafir delves into the psychology that comes from not having enough. Scarcity in various forms, from poverty and scheduling pressures to hunger and loneliness, concentrates the mind, focuses on alleviating pressing shortages and thus reduces the mental bandwidth available to address other important needs. A variety of studies will be reviewed and several implications considered.

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Eldar Shafir is a William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Most of his work focuses on descriptive analyses of inference, judgment, and decision making, and on issues related to behavioural economics. His research focuses primarily on how people make judgments and decisions in situations of conflict and uncertainty.
Panel 3

The power of positive social experience


Why do social networks make us healthy?

CIFAR Global Scholar Katharine Greenaway, University of Queensland

When considering what makes people healthy, we typically think about things like diet and exercise, genetic predisposition to disease, and exposure to environmental pathogens. But new research is emerging to show that other people – the social groups and networks we belong to – have just as much impact on physical and mental health as these traditional medical factors. In this talk, Professor Greenaway will show how other people make us healthy through their capacity to enhance the perception that we are in control of our lives.

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Katharine Greenaway is a social psychologist and CIFAR Global Scholar working under the primary supervision of Senior Fellow Alex Haslam (University of Queensland.) She is co-supervised by Senior Fellow Nyla Branscombe (University of Kansas.) At a broad level, Katie’s research deals with human motivations and needs, focusing on the need for control. As a Global Scholar, she is exploring feelings of control derived from group identity. Katie’s research will contribute to understanding why identifying with groups makes us happier, healthier, and more productive individuals.

Helping and Happiness: Can helping others improve our own well-being?

CIFAR Fellow Lara Aknin, Simon Fraser University

Does helping others make you happier? Although some philosophers have argued that people are selfish and callous, focused only on their own interests, an emerging body of research suggests that people derive more happiness from using their time and money to benefit others than when using these same resources to benefit themselves. In this talk, Professor Aknin will present cutting-edge research demonstrating that giving leads to happiness, not just in North America, but around the world, and not just with adults, but with young children too.

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Lara Beth Aknin is an assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University. Her primary research interests focus upon the antecedents and consequences of happiness and prosocial behaviour. Some of her recent work has examined perceptions of the money and happiness relationship and whether people reap greater happiness from spending money on others than when spending the same amount of money on themselves.

The new psychology of leadership: Why and how leaders need to CARE about group identity

CIFAR Senior Fellow Alexander Haslam, University of Queensland

Effective leadership is typically explained to be derived from the personal qualities of leaders that set them apart from others — as superior, special, different. In contrast to this view, The New Psychology of Leadership argues that effective leadership is grounded in leaders’ capacity to embody and advance a group identity that they share with others. This perspective encourages us to see leadership as a group process that centres on leaders working with group members to create, advance, represent and embed a shared sense of 'us' that is capable of motivating and directing their followership. This talk presents evidence of these processes in action, and spells out implications for all-important questions of theory and practice related to a range of key topics in contemporary society.

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Alexander Haslam is a professor of social and organizational psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland. His work examines how social identities and group memberships influence our interactions with others. He researches such questions as: How does belonging to groups and organizations shape the way we think, feel and behave? And how do individuals and groups in turn shape the nature of organizations and society?


The truth about happiness: what six ingredients make a life well lived and how well do Canadians fare?

A keynote address by CIFAR Senior Fellow John Helliwell

John Helliwell is a leading expert in the emerging science of happiness.

His keynote will be delivered on the heels of the second release of the World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which he edits with Richard Layard (London School of Economics) and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University).

Since its first release, the Report has been downloaded more than a half-a-million times and received international attention as the subject of a United Nations forum. The September 2013 release reveals six primary factors that drive life satisfaction and provides a country comparison on how well citizens evaluate their well-being.

Dr. Helliwell is co-director of CIFAR’s program in Social Interactions, Identity & Well Being and is Professor Emeritus at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an Officer of the Order of Canada.