Mayor’s Message: Reflections from ‘The Science of Well-Being’

Mayor Lou Manzo discusses one of the thing's he's learned while taking a free Yale University online course.

When this pandemic caused governors everywhere to issue multiple Executive Orders starting back in mid-March, including a “stay at home” order, we moved into unchartered waters. I don’t need to explain that to you since you are living your version of it for the past 60 days or so. I’ve written almost 50 updates in these last 60 days and I appreciate all the feedback I’ve received in the form of emails, text messages and phone calls. Fortunately, we were well positioned to proactively communicate during this crisis because of our fairly robust communication platform.

Beyond a township website, we have an active township Facebook page and extensive email list. That “opt-in” email list has always received the weekly Happening in the Hill update, so you are aware of all the activities and events in town. And now you are getting my coronavirus updates through that platform. By the way, you can always opt to be included in these email updates by registering at https://harrisontwp.us/residents-contact.

The virus, obviously, has dominated our communication of late, but last week I intentionally sought to include a segment in my updates that will focus on our emotional and spiritual well-being. I will be sharing snippets from an online course I am taking through Yale University called The Science of Well-Being. This course delves into why we behave and react in the manner we do with scientific research that shows that we can actually control much of that. We can, for the most part, control how we feel. But it also illustrates, scientifically, that some aspects of our outward behavior are rooted in our brain function and DNA. It’s fascinating!

Today, I’ll share one common human misperception. It’s known as the G.I. Joe Fallacy. In the 1980’s there were a series of public service announcements that used the G. I. Joe character to teach kids not to talk to strangers or play with matches. They always ended with G. I. Joe saying, “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.”  The course teaches that recent cognitive science research demonstrates that “knowing” is only a small portion of the battle in our everyday decisions.

The course says, “You may know that $19.99 is pretty much the same price as $20, but the first still feels like a significantly better deal. You may know a prisoner’s guilt is independent of whether you are hungry or not, but she’ll still seem like a better candidate for parole when you’ve recently had a snack. And you may know that a tasty piece of fudge shaped like dog poop will taste delicious, but you’ll still be hesitant to eat it.”

The lesson is that knowledge is rarely a controlling factor in our decision-making. The real power comes not from knowledge, but from things like situation selection, habit formation, and emotion regulation. Things we can control. The course confirms that the G. I. Joe Fallacy is just that….a fallacy. The article in the course ends by saying, “Knowing is not half the battle for most biases we have, including the G. I. Joe Fallacy. Simply recognizing that the G. I. Joe Fallacy exists is not sufficient for avoiding its grasp. So now you know. And that’s less than half the battle.”