RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Around New Year's lots of us are thinking about time and how we spend it. Yesterday we heard about an unusual wristwatch that challenged how we look at time and today we bring you a story about an alarm clock designed to help you stick to those New Year's resolutions.
The Chicago based company Fig believes the clock will help keep people motivated to meet their life goals. NPR's Alix Spiegel took a look and found the clock led her into some much deeper issues.
ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It's designed to sit on your bedside table. A small rectangle with a digital display - in every way indistinguishable from any other alarm clock. Except this.
RYAN GURY: Instead of telling you the time, it tells you three very important things. It tells you how much money you have in your savings account. It tells how many friends you currently have online, and it tells you how many days you have left to live.
SPIEGEL: That's Ryan Gury, one of the people who created ALARM clock, programmed it to remotely pull information from your bank accounts and social networks, programmed it also so that after filling out information about your age and your health habits and your family history, it could use actuarial tables to estimate - and then display - the number of days until your death. So that every morning when you open your eyes...
GURY: You see reality. You see the truth. You see a little bit of a motivating number, you know, that corresponds to how well you are doing in life.
SPIEGEL: This is the premise literally built into ALARM clock, that being confronted with reality, or some approximation of reality, might feel harsh but is ultimately helpful to people who want to live their lives right.
GURY: You know, it's a reminder of you're only here for a little bit and you really have to make everything matter. You've really got to push every day.
SPIEGEL: So how does confronting reality affect us? Is it more likely to motivate or overwhelm us? That's an empirical question, but once you start down the path of trying to understand how psychologists have answered that question, you find yourself in the middle of a very interesting history.
ROY BAUMEISTER: I mean reality always has its uses.
SPIEGEL: This is Roy Baumeister, president of the Society for the Study of Motivation, who for many years has tracked how psychologists view reality.
BAUMEISTER: Well, the assumption for a long time was that mental health meant seeing the world as it is.
SPIEGEL: For decades, according to Baumeister, the belief in psychology was that reality was an important thing to understand and that people who were mentally troubled - for instance, depressed people - just couldn't really grasp reality. Their view of the world, it was believed, was deeply negatively skewed.
BAUMEISTER: What is wrong with these depressed people that they twist things in this negative way and see things in such a negative fashion?
SPIEGEL: But then a bunch of research showed that actually it wasn't the depressed people whose view of reality was distorted. In all kinds of areas, when depressed people were measured against people who were emotionally healthy, their assessments were more realistic.
BAUMEISTER: Depressed people seemed to hit it pretty much on the head. They got the answers right. It's the normal, non-depressed people who twist things and see things as better than they are.
SPIEGEL: And so in psychology - reality, it basically fell out of fashion.
BAUMEISTER: Yes. There was a what's so great about reality movement.
SPIEGEL: Baumeister says that starting in the '80s, psychological researchers started aggressively promoting positive thinking because a positively skewed view of oneself and the world was seen as more productive and more helpful just in general for everyone, but especially for depressed people.
BAUMEISTER: It's not that we have to help them see the truth. They're already getting too much of the truth.
SPIEGEL: Recently, though, Baumeister says that the thinking on reality has become more nuanced. There's more work now pointing out the downside of not seeing the world clearly and how positive thinking can harm people, particularly at certain moments.
BAUMEISTER: You see, seeing the world accurately is useful when you have to make a decision. Then you want to know what are the chances that you can succeed in this.
SPIEGEL: So now, Baumeister says, research is focused how to optimally move people in and out of accurate assessments of reality.
BAUMEISTER: A lot of people go around with these positive distortions all the time when they are doing their job or interacting with others and thinking that they're better than they are, but when they have a big decision to make, suddenly they sort of slap themselves in the face and sober up and for a brief time see the world as it actually is.
And they are realistic about their chances and then they go back to the positive view. It almost seems like semi-unconsciously that people can turn these distortions on and off as are useful.
SPIEGEL: In other words: Reality is great - in small doses.
BAUMEISTER: The positive distortion will give you the confidence when you have to get up and perform. But when you have to make a hard choice of is this something I'll be a good at or is this something I should take on, then for a brief time you are more realistic about it.
SPIEGEL: Which brings us back to Ryan Gury's vision for Alarmclock.
GURY: You see reality.
GURY: ...you see the truth.
SPIEGEL: The clock has never been studied, so Baumeister doesn't know for sure how it might affect people. And he insists that he himself is a fan of reality. But still, he finds himself a little skeptical.
BAUMEISTER: To pummel every one with that all the time might - might backfire and have negative effects.
SPIEGEL: From a purely utilitarian perspective, it seems there is a place for reality in our lives - it just might not be the bedside table.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.