Jennifer S. Lerner: Emotion, addiction, and money: Under-explored pathways to poverty


Monday, April 2, 2018, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


NOTE CHANGE: Moved to Allison Dining Room (T-520)

Jennifer S. Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Decision Science, Harvard Kennedy School. Co-founder of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory.

Jennifer LernerRecent research on emotion has revealed that specific emotions are potent, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making (for review, see Lerner, Li, Valdesolo & Kassam, 2015; Lerner, Dorison, & Klusowski, forthcoming). For the most part, however, research on specific emotions and decision making has not yet intersected with research on addiction, health, and financial decision making – key factors in understanding income inequality. 

Drawing on a nascent program of research, I will present a series of studies showing that sadness plays a uniquely harmful role in financial decision making, in exacerbating use of addictive substances, and, consequently, in reducing personal wealth. Indeed, sadness may be an as-yet unrecognized perpetuator of poverty traps.

After presenting study findings, I will discuss emerging implications for public policy. One such implication is that models of behavior change need to account for the causal effects of specific emotions. For example, public service announcements designed to reduce use of addictive substances should not themselves induce sadness in the viewer. This suggests, for example, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s campaign to prevent smoking—which relies heavily on messages invoking sadness—may well produce an effect that is opposite of the one intended.

About the speaker

Dr. Jennifer Lerner is a Professor of Public Policy and Decision Science at the Harvard Kennedy School and Co-Founder of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory. She is the first psychologist in the history of the Harvard Kennedy School to receive tenure. 

Drawing insights from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, her research examines human judgment and decision making. Together with colleagues, she developed a theoretical framework that successfully predicts the effects of specific emotions on specific judgment and choice outcomes. Applied widely, the framework has been especially useful in predicting emotion effects on perceptions of risk, economic decisions, and attributions of responsibility. 

Lerner also pursues two related programs of research, examining (a) mechanisms through which accountability and other authority systems shape judgment and choice outcomes; and (b) causes and consequences of stress.

Published in leading scientific journals, and cited over 17,000 times in scholarly publications alone, Lerner's research also regularly receives coverage in popular outlets (e.g., Good Morning, America; National Public Radio; NOVA; The Wall Street JournalWashington Post; and The New York Times).

In a White House ceremony, Lerner received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers in early stages of their careers. She has also received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award and the National Science Foundation’s "Sensational 60” designation. (The 60 members in this latter group are designated as the most prominent American scientists whose first grants were graduate school fellowships from the NSF.)

Lerner has received several teaching awards including the Harvard Kennedy School’s “Dinner on the Dean” award for outstanding teaching (multiple times) and the Harvard Graduate Student Government’s “Lectures That Last Award.”

Learn more about Jennifer Lerner's work


See also: Spring 2018