Emily Balcetis Author Interview

Photo of Emily Balcetis

Emily Balcetis, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at New York University. She’s the author of more than seventy-five scientific publications, and her research has been covered by Forbes, Newsweek, Time, Cosmopolitan, Scientific American, and The Atlantic. Her TED talk on “Why some people find exercise harder than others” has had more than 3.7 million views.

Her new book is Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World.

When it comes to setting and meeting goals, we may see—quite literally—our plans, our progress, and our potential in the wrong ways. We perceive ourselves as being closer to or further from the end than we may actually be depending on our frame of reference. We can learn to leverage perceptual illusions if we know when and how to use them to our advantage.

Drawing on her own rigorous research and cutting-edge discoveries in vision science, cognitive research, and motivational psychology, Balcetis offers unique accounts of the perceptual habits, routines, and practices that successful people use to set and meet their ambitions. Through case studies of entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, and celebrities—as well as her own colorful experience of trying to set and reach a goal—she brings to life four powerful yet largely untapped visual tactics that can be applied according to the situation.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Emily about happiness, habits, self-knowledge, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Emily: I love laughing. To really laugh. To laugh from your belly, where your eyes close but still somehow tears fall down your face. Where your mouth does weird things, so weird that you feel like you really should cover it so bugs don’t land on your tongue. I get the same feeling—that rush of endorphins—from laughing as I do exercising. But laughing doesn’t take as long.

But sometimes laughing isn’t always an experience I can have. Or maybe it’s that I don’t really want to show my laughing face to the people I’m around when I could use a laugh the most.

So what I do consistently that makes me happy is be in nature. Most of the time, I am narrowly focused on whatever I am doing—as people who are trying to effectively juggle family commitments and a professional career have to be. (I gave up multitasking long ago—doesn’t work to get the job done for me.) What going into nature does for me is broaden my perspective. I can quite honestly see a bigger picture. The place on the horizon where the blue of the water starts to match the blue of sky. Where it doesn’t look like trees anymore, but just a forest. Seeing more expansively helps me to think with a wider bracket. Time starts to sit in my mind differently. Thoughts on how the bits of my life interconnect become clearer. New opportunities for solving tough problems show up in my conversations with myself.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Happiness doesn’t just come to me. It’s something I—well, we all—have the power to cultivate and grow if we don’t feel like we have enough of it. We have choices about how we spend our day, who we spend it with, who we consider family, how we make our money and where we spend it, how to pursue our goals, and when we face off against our biggest challenges. Some days we might feel stuck – stuck in a place we don’t want to be. But even when those physical locations or conditions don’t change, our psychological experiences in them can.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

One summer, my research team and I asked over 1,400 men and women from sixteen countries which of their five senses they would least like to lose. Regardless of their citizenship, their age, or their gender, seven out of every ten people said that losing their sense of sight would be the worst. They couldn’t live without it.

We prioritize what we see. We rely on sight tremendously. Maybe this dependence is part of the reason that we think it couldn’t possibly betray us. But it does, lots of the time, without us realizing it. Often, we see things not as they are, not completely. We see the world differently than the person next to us. And I mean this literally.

Once, in an auditorium in New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art, I showed a line drawing made by a clever artist to the room full of patrons attending a lecture on the science and art of deception. I put the drawing up for just a few seconds, then turned the screen black. I polled the crowd asking, “Who saw the sea animal?” Only about 20% of hands shot up. Before the feeling of oddity could arise in those brave souls, I then asked, “Who saw the farm animal?” The other 80% then raised their hands. Quickly, a din grew, and I saw an older woman shove her glasses a little farther up her nose, and rhetorically ask, “What is she talking about?” See, I had shown a drawing that could legitimately be interpreted as the head of a horse or the full body of a seal laying on its belly. Depending on where your eyes landed first, you might be inclined towards one interpretation over another. But because our eyes take in most but not all of the interesting contours and edges of the line drawing, we form only one understanding of what we’ve seen. The mental image we’ve created then firms up our visual experience and we cannot recreate in our mind’s eye anything other than the image we decided we saw. What this means is that from one person to the next, in that museum audience and elsewhere, any two people might be having a visual experience that is error-prone, that is incomplete, that does not truthfully convey the reality of the outside world. Our eyes may be deceiving us.

But if we know that fact about sight, that what we see is fungible, we can use that to our advantage. We can train our eyes and our brains to see differently. The consequence is that we might respond better. For example, I trained struggling health enthusiasts to look around their surroundings by narrowing in on something interesting as they went out for a run. Compared to people who just looked around as they naturally would, these people who assumed a narrow focus took more steps in each run and moved faster. They also went out on more runs in the week that followed, our research shows. Focusing on something specific led to better experiences, which in turn led to repeat performances. Doing better once meant that people wanted to and did try again later on.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

In my book, I write about learning to play one song on the drums. The goal was just one song, but played just amazingly enough. The backstory on my motivation is kind of important, at least to me: I took on this challenge when my son was 4-months old. I wasn’t one of those people who always felt like I would be a great mother. Or even that I wanted to be a mother. But I did work hard for him to join our family and can’t imagine life without him in it now that he’s here. When he first showed up, my world was thrown for a loop. Not any more than the normal new mom’s experience, but now I was experiencing it myself.

In all honesty, I felt like all of a sudden I had just gotten very boring. People stopped by to meet my little man, Mattie. They chatted and asked how things were. I didn’t have much more to say than comment on diapers, poop, milk, or sleep. His sleep and the lack of mine. I decided that I would give myself 9-months. (Nine months had just been a really important span of time in recent memory.) And I would become a rock drummer, but specifically a one hit wonder.

It was slow going off the blocks. I was advised, by my book editor Marnie who perhaps had a sixth sense for stymied progress, that I should set a date and send out invitations for a show where I’d perform the song publicly. “Get some skin in the game,” she urged.

What I knew needed to happen was that practice needed to become a routine. There was no cramming that would make all four of my limbs coordinate their independent movements in any useful way. I needed a habit.

One of the most effective tactics I came upon is what I called “materializing” my practice. We prioritize the things that make their way into our calendars. The things we quite literally see on our to-do list for the day. We give short shrift to those things that we just keep in our minds. For me, scheduling my practice sessions into my calendar just the same way I do doctors’ appointments, faculty meetings, or dinner dates increased the number of times I actually sat down at the kit. I took my practice as seriously as I did my other commitments once they appeared in my schedule the same way other obligations did.

I learned the song, eventually. And on time. And rocked my heart out at my show!

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I love taking quizzes, especially ones about myself. I hope that doesn’t make me seem like a narcissist. Let’s call my interest just a form of “self-psychology.” I like learning about who I am. I’ve sat with scientologists and taken their Oxford Capacity Analysis. I took the Meyers Briggs before teaching thousands of high school students what it is and what it means. I did Cosmo Magazine’s 36 Signs You’re In Love the Millennial Way. When I was married, and definitely too old to be considered a millennial.

So when I came upon the Gretchen Rubin Quiz, I dropped everything (including my scheduled appointment with my dentist) to take it. I’m officially a Questioner. When I was answering the questions, I could feel an eensy pull towards Upholder, and a smidge of Obliger-type answers. But as an amateur survey-taker and professional survey maker—as a social psychologist—I think the feeling of being defined by a kaleidoscope of qualities, to different degrees, under different circumstances is normal. In general, I do find that “Questioner” is an apt description of me in most circumstances, most of the time. A career in basic science and research almost requires that. I enjoy uncertainty and the process of discovery, so asking why, how, when, and really?? (often in that order) in response to even the most simplest of things is maddening for my audience, I know. (Just ask my husband. Sorry Pete, but thank you for loving me nonetheless!)

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

What interferes with my habits and happiness? My constant struggle with “having it all.” I hate that the phrase exists, that women—especially—get to figure out how they want to respond to that trope. My personal struggle is the result of a fortunate professional position I’m in and a personal deficit. My job allows me the freedom to set my own schedule day to day for the most part. And I personally struggle to say no to things that have even just a bit more than an inkling of potential to be interesting. Which means I get to choose whether I do drop off AND pick-up at my son’s preschool. I want to, I can, and so I do. I get to choose whether I make locomotive paper puppets with his classmates during the middle of the morning, when professional meetings are in full force. I want to, I can, and so I do. Same with taking on a professional opportunity to do workshops for community groups, give a lecture at a local museum, teach students at other universities in other countries, or host an out of town friend’s longing for the best weekday brunch. I am certain that if I said no more often, I might enjoy what I say yes to a little bit more.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

My brother-in-law Dustin coined our family motto before he was even officially part of the family. “Irreverence means love.” I am so lucky to have a family—including all the extended bits—that is interested in each other and supportive. But we are also relentless in our teasing. I had no idea we were extreme in that regard until my sister’s future husband spent his first Christmas with us and we pounced on him. Maybe too hard? I think, just the right amount.

Life is so serious. There are big things that require maintenance, that throw you for a loop when you don’t have the time or resources to deal with it. We all think, next week or next year, it’ll be easier. Life will move more slowly. It doesn’t. It won’t. So finding ways to get a little levity day to day helps, in my perspective. And I guess we find it in making fun of each other, and ourselves.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

Is Lonesome Dove an odd choice? I read it twice, back to back, on a camping trip in Colorado. I have a few vivid memories of that book that haunt me today. The water moccasin moment plays a large role in the recurring stress dreams I have that feature snakes on my neck. But maybe more directly to the question, I remember the bits where we learn about how hard life is for Clara and Bob Allen, after Bob was kicked in the head by a horse.

I was on this camping trip with my sister Allison and we were on a horseback ride through the mountains. She didn’t want to be there even before we set off—her dream was always to have one plant, one cat, and one bedroom in New York City, not to sit on a dusty, sweaty animal and sleep on the ground while on vacation. She sat on a horse in front of me. I was certain I wasn’t sitting up straight and proper and kept asking her to turn around and check me out relative to an invisible plumb line. After the third annoyed time of turning around, she watched as my horse finally let out the large breath he was holding, and my saddle quickly slipped to under his torso with me attached to it. My horse, now shocked that his rider was tickling his underbelly bits, took off running. Straight into the bum of my sister’s horse, who bolted for the woods. In that moment, looking at the world upside down from the bottom of a horse’s torso, recalled the precursor to Bob Allen’s comatose state and had to make the quick choice between staying attached to the horse or letting go and falling down the steep and jagged side of the mountain trail. I let go.

Once all horses were stopped and corralled back up on the trail with all riders on top and accounted for, the legitimate cowboy in charge of this show said to my sister and I, “You girls are T-U-F-F tough.” So maybe Lonesome Dove saved my life? I like to think so.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

As a social psychologist, I’m pretty wary about telling people my job title at non-academic parties. Mostly, the reasons are that people don’t know what that is. Thinking I must mean clinical psychologist, they quickly clam up and stop talking to me because they think I can read their minds and can quickly figure out how much they actually do not (or do) like their mother. I can’t, on either front.

Social psychology is the study of people. Anything about people. I get to ask questions like why are people struggling to meet their goals? What are they trying and can we offer more effective strategies? What do people think is working to help them make progress on their biggest challenges and are they right? I design studies, test specific conditions, invite different types of people to try out the contexts I set up, and get evidence for any answer I might pose to the questions. That means that when I actually do tell people, “I’m a social psychologist,” and when they keep talking to me after that, the advice they ask for and receive isn’t just my gut reaction, my intuition, or what worked for me. Though I can offer that too. It’s an informed response, with staying power, and the potential to actually work.

Like tools in a toolbox, there are multiple strategies we have for overcoming challenges we face when pursuing our goals. A hammer works to get a (not the) job done. Not every job. And not every time. A screwdriver is useful and important. Together, the set of tools can make faster progress. But it’s important to know when to use one and put the other down.

The strategies I suggest for effectively meeting our goals can be likened to tools in a toolbox. It’s important to have a fully loaded one, complete with hammers and screwdrivers, but also wrenches and duct tape. I hope to offer readers a few more tools that they might not even known would be useful, and insights on the types of projects those tools might be useful for.

These tools all involve the sense of sight. We value our eyes. We believe that they are strong and powerful sources of information. And they are, but we can learn to use them in ways that promote a clearer understanding of the challenges that are really out there, can bring the finish line closer, and help us get there better.

Book cover of Clearer Closer Better by Emily Balcetis



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