The Inverted-U: the research behind why there can indeed be too much of a good thing

The Inverted-U is a journal article by Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz. It’s the pillar of Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments in David and Goliath, which is how I discovered it.

Reading academic papers is tougher than your regular blog posts and nonfiction books. It’s uncomfortable but I try to push through one or two each month. I can’t imagine how grad students (and law students) do it. I suppose as with all things that you get used to it.

Here are my notes. Reader beware – there’s a good chance some of the below is inaccurate, incomplete, or misrepresentative, since this is only one read-through in the eyes of a pure layman.

Adam Grant and Barry Shwartz are professors at UPenn Wharton and Swarthmore, respectively; I’ll refer to them below as GS.

The Inverted-U by Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz

Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. – Aristotle

  • The academic term for too much of a good thing is “nonmonotonic inverted-U-shaped effects”
  • Psychology research has proven that certain behaviors increase happiness (eg, sending thank-you messages, spending money on others, making choices to increase autonomy), but GS believe there needs to be more discussion and research on the downsides of excess
  • Aristotle argued people need to find the mean, the “proportionate” response to things
  • Cited studies and examples include:
    • Learning (on the job) is good, but people too focused on learning can divert attention from performance, waste resources, distract from key priorities
    • Complex jobs provide satisfaction and fulfillment, but jobs that are too complex (I’m thinking anything in public office these days) can lead to stress, burnout, dissatisfaction
    • An NBA study showed that practice was helpful and improved performance, but excessive practice (and excessive experience, as measured in years) led to overconfidence, complacency, and lack of creativity
    • Detail-orientation is important to success, but when you are too detail-oriented – especially for simple, mechanical jobs, you can miss the bigger picture
    • Generosity is good, but too much consumes your time and energy. A study of volunteers showed that 100 to 800 hours per year is optimal
  • Other examples of the inverted-U include optimism (too much can lead to under preparation and under estimation of risks), self-esteem (can harm relationships and health), cheerfulness (can lead to engaging in risky behaviors), and life satisfaction (“moderately satisfied” people earned the most, “extremely satisfied” people earned less and had lower levels of education)
  • GS stress that most data are correlational, and thus causality is uncertain. We’re not sure if moderately satisfied people are driven to be more successful, or if more successful people, once they compare their BMW to their neighbor’s Porsche, are less satisfied
  • Why does this happen? I struggled through this part, but here’s my best shot:
    • One reason is “virtue conflicts”. In other words, life is zero-sum, and the more of one virtue you cultivate, the less time and energy you spend on other virtues (helping others is good, but so is investing in yourself)
    • The second reason is “good things satiate and bad things escalate”. So a good burrito is great on the first bite, but not so tasty near the end. And bad things – like substance addiction – can grow in magnitude
    • The third reason is the characteristics of some virtues, where one effect is harmful in excess (eg, motivation is a positive virtue, and increased focus is an effect, but too much focus can be bad for complex, big-picture tasks)
  • GS end by asking a few questions, including:
    • 1. How much of a specific trait is too much?
    • 2. Why does this happen?
    • 3. When – under what conditions, circumstances, contexts – does this inverted-U happen?
  • They believe that applying Aristotle’s concept of the mean and the inverted-U are helpful to understanding behavior and happiness. For example, researchers used to believe that the more choice we had, the better. It was only recently that the same researchers realized too much choice can make you less happy (the paradox of choice)
  • Are there any virtues where more is always better? What is known as an “unmitigated good”?

We believe that the search for the Aristotelian mean represents an opportunity for psychologists to answer fundamental questions about the limits of positive experiences. The inverted-U is a widespread phenomenon in psychology, and we believe it deserves more attention in psychology writ large and in positive psychology especially – Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz

Here’s the original article. Happy reading! I’d love to hear what you think and if you came across different insights than I did.

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Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.