The Experimenting Self

One of the preeminent figures in the social sciences is an individual named Donald Campbell. His primary contribution to science was through methodology and epistemology. One of the phrases that is historically attached to his name is “the experimenting society.” Campbell’s idea of a utopian society was one where policy decisions were made based on actual experimental data. Therefore, those programs and activities that were shown, experimentally, to be beneficial would be funded and those that were not validated by good science would be left by the wayside. The experimenting society would constantly search to improve itself through the use of the scientific method. There would be no place for cronyism, shady business dealings, or bribery in the experimenting society because all decisions would be data based.

I like the idea of the experimental society and applying it to my own life. What would my life be like if I constantly challenged myself to improve and used experimental methods and data to drive that improvement? I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t follow in the footsteps of Campbell and institute our own experimenting society within the confines of our own lives. It’s really actually quite simple; identify areas of your life that you want to improve, measure you’re current state, try something different, measure yourself after doing the new behavior, and analyze the results. This is one of the simplest experimental designs (pre-test post-test) and yet, has powerful implications for figuring out what actually is capable of making a measurable change in your life.


This is the one step that I'm really, really, good at (probably too good). I always have an idea for something I can do to improve myself in some way. Whether it's an idea to make myself physically healthier, mentally stronger, a more caring person, or some other habit or quirk that could stand for improvement, I have a long list of possibilities to pursue.

A helpful starting point is to think about your values and ways in which you might make them a more prominent part of your life. For some people it's really easy to point out the handful of values that undergird and guide their actions. However, I don't think everybody always has success with this method. I recentlywrote an article proposing an alternative method, which I'll summarize quickly here. Instead of trying to focus on values, think about times in your life where you felt "on top of your game" or "truly happy." Whatever you were doing to elicit these feelings in the past is probably a good candidate for something you should try to do more of in the future. Make a list of times where you felt awesome and what you were doing at that time. Those activities and actions are now on your list of things you'd like to change.


The basis of the experimenting society, and therefore the experimenting life, is making data driven decisions about what to do in the future. Campbell would design and implement research studies to generate the best data possible to answer questions about programs and policies. It's your job to collect the data on what you're currently doing so you can make your own decisions about how to best move forward.

In the academic world, there is a certain level of tension between the two major categories of data, qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative data is what you generate with words through observation and description. It generally takes the form of interviews, structured observations, case studies and other methods where the primary vehicle of information is the written word. Quantitative data, on the other hand, is based on numbers. Survey data, census information, and other techniques that generate numbers you can run statistical analyses on fall under the umbrella of quantitative.

We're going to combine the best of both worlds into what academics call "mixed methods." In my own data collection efforts, an example of qualitative data I collect on myself is through journal writing. I'll pay attention to the area of my life I want to improve and write down my observations. At this point I'm not consciously trying to make any changes. 

On the quantitative side of things, it depends on the type of improvement I'm trying to make. For example, in past efforts I've recorded the number of times I've meditated or bitten my fingernails. Right now I'm using the software program RescueTime to collect quantitative data about how I spend time on my computer. The nice thing about quantitative data is that it can be much more objective than qualitative data. As the cliche goes, "Numbers don't lie." (Although, if you're any good at statistics you can do some serious truth bending).

This step is all about figuring out the best way to measure the level of whatever you decided you'd like to improve in Step 1. For instance, if you looked at your life and decided that you wanted to try being a more outgoing person, for Step 2 you could measure the number of times you went out with friends (quantitative) and how you felt after each time you did or didn't accept (qualitative). A nice little bonus, however, is something called the Hawthorne Effect. Essentially, sometimes just observing something will actually cause it to improve. Several times I've ended up improving my area of concern from Step 1 just by becoming more aware of it.


This is the fun part. Now that you've decided what you want to change and recorded data about where you currently are, you get to change your behavior! For me, this usually takes the form of a 30 Day Challenge. I'll make a conscious and concerted effort to improve the area of concern I fleshed out in Step 1. In terms of specifically what I end up doing, I usually try to base it on some kind of research that has already been done. For example, there has been a lot of research into the benefit of cultivating gratitude. One of the habits the research supports is keeping a Gratitude Journal. For 30 days I'll make sure I write down a couple of things I'm grateful for at the end of the day. Presumably, I've done some kind of happiness measurement before beginning this behavior (see Step 2) so I'll have something to measure against at the end of the 30 days. Sometimes I'll get ideas from other bloggers or friends of mine who have done something interesting that I want to try as well. The cool thing is that this doesn't have o be a huge change in order to see pretty big results. Try to pick something small that you know you can stick with instead of a huge behavior change that you aren't likely to sustain.


This is basically the same as Step 2. Now that you have your baseline data and have changed your behavior for at least 30 days, it's time to see if there's any change in your outcome. Obviously, you need to collect data on the same issue (and using the same methods) that you did in Step 2. 


What do you find? Did 30 days of a behavior change create any difference in the area of your life you wanted to improve? What does the data say? If you found a positive difference -- great! Assuming the change you made in Step 3 was something you can sustain indefinitely, you've found a way to measurably improve your life. If your data doesn't show any difference, why might that be? Is it possible that the action you took in Step 3 actually affects something else? For instance, maybe you wanted to become happier so you decided to meditate every day for 30 days. You may feel that the experience was very worthwhile but the data doesn't support your gut feeling (you didn't score any higher on a happiness survey, for instance). Perhaps meditation tapped into something different? Perhaps meditating everyday made you more mindful but not any more happy. Still a worthwhile effect, just not the one you measured. Or, perhaps you didn't implement the change in Step 3 consistently enough to see any changes? Either way, you've now made a scientific and systematic approach to improving your life and you're ready to start your next attempt!


Campbell's utopia of the experimenting society never actually came to be. Political and corporate pressures proved to be too much for our politicians and policy makers to handle. Instead of letting science drive their policy decisions the sway of money, prestige, or other non-scientific forces end up playing a large role. While the experimenting society may be far from our current situation, there's no reason we can't create our own individual utopias through the experimenting self philosophy. The more mini-experiments you run on yourself the better you'll get at it and the more you'll learn about how to make your own experience as a human being a better one. Much of the research done in positive psychology has shown that happiness is not something that just randomly descends from the heavens to anoint the chosen few. Instead, there are actual steps and actions you can take to create happiness for yourself. Adopting the mindset of permanent curiosity and perpetual self-improvement will help you figure out what those activities are for yourself.