Elizabeth Dunn


Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Harnessing social psychology to promote social interactions between strangers (2023)

For decades, researchers have emphasized the important role that close relationships play in satisfying people’s fundamental need for belonging. More recently, a growing body of research suggests that talking to strangers may also promote feelings of social connection; yet, people readily forego these opportunities. A popular assumption in the current literature is that people avoid talking to strangers because they underestimate others’ willingness to talk. In this dissertation, I test this causal claim by enabling people to exchange explicit social signals about their willingness to talk. To facilitate recent research examining the impact of contextual factors (e.g., talking to strangers) on momentary feelings of social connection, I start by developing and validating the 10-item UBC State Social Connection Scale (UBC-SSCS). In Study 1, I develop an initial pool of items and confirm my factor structure. In Study 2, I show that the UBC-SSCS is sensitive to a recall manipulation that asks participants to write about an experience in which they spent time alone versus with others, and that the UBC-SSCS is associated with other theoretical constructs in expected ways. In Study 3, I show that the UBC-SSCS is able to distinguish between participants who are alone versus socializing with friends, and that the scale is more sensitive to variations in people’s momentary experiences compared to trait measures of social connection. Next, I test whether allowing people to exchange explicit social signals increases social interactions between strangers. Overall, I find limited evidence for my hypothesis. The ability to send explicit social signals did not significantly promote social interactions between commuters on buses (Study 4), students at a food court (Study 5b), and groups of students at an outdoor field (Study 6). Under ideal conditions, however, explicit social signals can have a marginal impact on sociability—such as getting people to engage in deeper conversations (Study 7). Reflecting on my findings, I propose a broader model that outlines a conjunctive set of conditions that need to be met before a person decides to engage with a stranger.

View record

The impact of cash transfers across the economic spectrum (2022)

Cash transfers are an effective tool to alleviate poverty in lower income countries. By enabling people to flexibly meet their needs, cash transfers improve health, psychological well-being, education, and employment outcomes. Despite these documented benefits for people living in poverty, there is a dearth of research across diverse socioeconomic circumstances. In this dissertation, I examine how cash transfers influence people’s well-being across the global economic spectrum (i.e., people who are homeless, and people with low, middle, and high incomes). In Study 1, I use a cluster-randomized controlled trial to test the impact of an unconditional cash transfer of CAD$7,500 to each of 50 individuals experiencing homelessness, with another 65 as controls in Vancouver, BC. Over one year, cash recipients spent fewer days homeless, increased savings and spending with no increase in temptation goods spending, and generated societal net savings of $777 per recipient via reduced time in shelters. In Study 2, I document a potential barrier to implementing cash transfer policies for people experiencing homelessness: there is public mistrust toward the ability of homeless individuals to manage money. In Study 3, I test interventions to overcome this mistrust and increase public support for such a policy using messaging that highlights the benefits of cash transfers. These studies provide the first empirical evidence demonstrating the potential for cash transfers as a tool to address homelessness; but, do the benefits of cash transfers extend beyond those living in poverty? In Studies 4-5, I analyzed data from another randomized controlled trial to examine the impact of cash transfers with a diverse sample spanning the global economic spectrum. Two-hundred people from seven countries received cash gifts of $10,000 each, with another 100 as controls. In Study 4a, I show that cash recipients at most income levels experienced gains in well-being, but the gains were largest for lower-income recipients. In Study 4b, I find that cash recipients spent significant portions of the money generously on others, illustrating how benefits can spread through social networks. Overall, this research demonstrates that cash transfers are a flexible tool that can provide benefits across the economic spectrum.

View record

Exchanging cents for seconds : the happiness benefits of choosing time over money (2017)

Most North Americans report feeling increasingly pressed for both time and money. When attempting to maximize well-being, what should people do: give up money to have more time or give up time to have more money? To answer this question, I assess whether and how trading discretionary income to have more free time promotes happiness. First, I develop a new measure (the Resource Orientation Measure) and use this measure to assess whether people’s general orientations to value time over money are associated with greater happiness (Studies 1-5; N = 7,196). Across five studies, I find evidence that people’s general orientation to prioritize time over money is associated with greater happiness, and that this finding holds controlling for materialism, current feelings of time and material affluence, financial security, and demographic characteristics such as income and marital status. Building on this work, I narrow my investigation to one specific instantiation of choosing time over money: using money to buy time by delegating disliked tasks. In Studies 6-11, I document a positive association between buying time and happiness (N = 4,217). Again, these links hold controlling for possible third variables such as discretionary income, the amount of money that people report spending on leisure activities, income, age, gender, and marital status. In Studies 9 to 12 I document a mechanism for these results: buying time protects people from the negative impact of time-stress on happiness. I then provide evidence that buying time causes happiness (N = 60; Study 13). Working adults report greater end-of-day happiness after spending $40 on a time-saving purchase than after spending $40 on a material purchase for themselves. The benefits of buying time are driven in part through reductions in perceived time pressure. Finally, I develop a novel paradigm to demonstrate a key factor that can undermine the benefits of buying time: guilt (Study 14). This work provides the first empirical evidence that buying time can promote subjective well-being.

View record

Digitally Connected, Socially Disconnected: Can Smartphones Compromise the Benefits of Interacting with Others? (2015)

Since the first computers began entering people’s homes more than 30 years ago, human-computer interactions (HCI) have become central to people’s everyday activities. A decade later, the Internet powered another technological revolution by connecting computers and transforming how people connect with one another. And less than 10 years ago, the advent of ultraportable computing devices such as smartphones has marked the beginning of yet another technological age—one in which people can connect to unlimited digital worlds everywhere they go. In this digital age of pervasive computing, people can foster a sense of connectedness with others virtually anywhere. But could this ubiquitous connectivity have hidden costs for the fabric of people’s nondigital social lives? To provide an initial insight into this question, I examine how smartphones may be affecting both the quality and the quantity of people’s in-person social interactions. I show that smartphones can fracture attention and compromise the social connectedness parents reap when spending time with their children at a summer festival (Study 1) and at a science museum (Study 2). Beyond the realm of close relationships, I find preliminary evidence that smartphones may affect the social and emotional benefits people realize when they have the opportunity to forge new relationships—both while having food together (Study 3) and while waiting together (Study 4). And, using nationally representative data from the World Values Survey (Study 5) and data from a controlled experiment (Study 6), I show that smartphones may be affecting the broader social fabric of society by compromising opportunities to cultivate a sense of trust in others. Finally, I theorize more broadly about how and when ubiquitous connectivity may undermine or support social and emotional well-being. Specifically, I propose factors that may both moderate and mediate (e.g., asynchronisity, capitalization, social signaling) the effects of ubiquitous connectivity.

View record

Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties (2013)

Can acquaintances contribute to our happiness, or are they inconsequential compared to close friends and family? This dissertation expands the focus of study within social psychology, which has been almost exclusively directed towards strong ties, to include examination of weak ties (i.e., acquaintances). A broad sample of Americans reported the number of weak ties they had in their social network, and rated their own happiness (Study 1). People with more weak tie relationships reported being happier. Switching the focus from social relationships to social interactions, students kept track of their interactions with weak tie classmates during a particular class, and reported their happiness after class (Study 2). During classes when they had more interactions with weak tie classmates than usual, they were happier. Expanding the scope to include all daily interactions, students kept track of their interactions with weak ties (Study 3). As before, on days when they had more interactions with weak ties than usual, they were happier. Given that people trim their social networks as they age, and interact with fewer acquaintances starting in their late teens, we replicated this study with a community sample (Study 4). People again reported positive consequences on days when they interacted with more weak ties. The last two studies were experimental, rather than correlational. In a field study at Starbucks, people who were assigned to have a genuine social interaction with the cashier, thus treating them more like a weak tie than a stranger, experienced a more positive mood than people who were assigned to have an efficient interaction with the cashier (Study 5). Finally, participants were instructed to increase the number of daily weak tie interactions for ten days, to test whether this would cause sustained increases in happiness (Study 6). Although people experienced an increase in flourishing, and reported a somewhat greater decrease in loneliness over time than people in the control condition, there were no broad changes in happiness or belonging. These studies – the first in social psychology to explicitly focus on weak ties – consistently find a relationship between weak ties and happiness.

View record

On financial generosity and well-being: when, where and how spending money on others increases happiness (2012)

Can money buy happiness? Recent research has shown that how people spend their money can have important consequences for their well-being. Specifically, research by Dunn, Aknin, and Norton (2008) demonstrated that spending money on others (prosocial spending) leads to higher levels of happiness than spending money on oneself (personal spending). This dissertation extends upon the work of Dunn et al. (2008) in five ways. First, Study 1 examines whether the mood benefits of prosocial spending are self-perpetuating by asking people to recall a previous personal or prosocial spending experience, report their happiness and make a future spending choice. Findings support the presence of a feedback loop; recalling a previous act of prosocial spending led to higher levels of happiness, and higher levels of happiness, in turn, predicted a willingness to engage in prosocial spending again. Second, Studies 2 - 4 test whether the relationship between prosocial spending and happiness requires positive social connection. Participants given the opportunity to spend on others by making a charitable donation (Study 2) or engaging in interpersonal spending (Studies 3 and 4) were happier when giving allowed for positive interpersonal connection with a beneficiary, but not when this connection was blocked or minimized. Third, Studies 5 and 6 examine whether perceived prosocial impact – the belief that one made a positive influence on someone else– represents another critical moderator of the emotional benefits of generous spending. Fourth, Studies 7, 8a, and 8b investigate whether the happiness benefits of prosocial spending exist outside North America and in other countries around the world. Using data from the Gallup World Poll, the relationship between prosocial spending and well-being was found to be positive in the majority of countries surveyed (Study7). Furthermore, participants in Canada and Uganda (Study 8a) and India (Study 8b) who recalled making a purchase for someone else reported higher levels of happiness than those who recalled making a purchase for themselves. Finally, Study 9 explores whether the emotional benefits of sharing one’s resources are detectable in children (
View record

Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Is a good bot better than a mediocre human? : chatbots as alternatives sources of social connection (2021)

Around the world, hundreds of millions of people have used social chatbots designed to provide companionship to their users. But can people reap genuine feelings of social connection and happiness from interacting with chatbots? Across four pre-registered studies (N = 1201), participants shared good news with an interaction partner whom they believed was either a chatbot or a human. The conversation partner responded in either a highly responsive or less responsive manner. Across the studies, interacting with a highly responsive chatbot was more rewarding than interacting with a less responsive human. Participants who believed they interacted with a highly responsive chatbot felt more rapport, were more socially connected, and were in a better mood than participants who interacted with a less responsive human. Despite their inherent lack of agency, chatbots that are programmed to respond in an optimal manner may deliver greater social benefits than suboptimal human conversation partners.

View record

Bridging the gap between reason and emotion: harnessing the psychology of risk perception to prepare for earthquakes (2019)

Can we encourage people to prepare for a natural disaster by changing the way that scientific information about risk is presented? In assessing the risk posed by a particular hazard, people tend to be guided more strongly by their emotional reactions than by logical or statistical analysis; human beings are driven to protect themselves from risks that that they have actually experienced, that are easy to envision, or that are linked to vivid, concrete images. Thus, even if people recognize that earthquakes pose an important threat, they may be unmotivated to take action to prepare for this abstract risk in the absence of direct personal experience. Harnessing past research and theorizing, we developed a novel intervention to transform scientific information into vivid, emotionally evocative imagery. In a pre-registered study, 411 participants were shown publicly available statistics or a vivid, scientifically-grounded image of what a local school would look like after a major earthquake. Compared to those who viewed statistics, participants who viewed the image were more likely to sign a petition to upgrade schools to make them safer during earthquakes. These findings suggest that using vivid images to communicate scientific information can be an effective strategy for motivating people to support risk mitigation initiatives.

View record

Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions (2017)

Decades of research on human happiness points to one central conclusion: Engaging in positive social interactions is critical for well-being. The current smartphone revolution, however, may be altering how and when we derive these benefits. Using a field experiment and experience sampling, we found the first evidence that phone use may undermine the enjoyment people derive from real world social interactions. In Study 1, we recruited over 300 community members and students to share a meal at a restaurant with friends or family. Participants were randomly assigned to keep their phones on the table or to put their phones away during the meal. When phones were present (vs. absent), participants felt more distracted, which reduced how much they enjoyed spending time with their friends/family. We found consistent results using experience sampling in Study 2; during in-person interactions, participants felt more distracted and reported lower enjoyment if they used their phones than if they did not. This research suggests that despite their ability to connect us to others across the globe, phones may undermine the benefits we derive from interacting with those across the table.

View record

Thinking About Time as Money Decreases Environmental Behaviour (2014)

Despite high profile environmental campaigns, Americans are no more likely to engage in environmental behavior today than they were 20 years ago. A novel explanation for this paradox may lie in the increasing tendency for people to see their time as money. National survey data suggests that seeing time as money is related to decreased environmental behavior. Using large-scale survey data (Study 1), we show that people are less likely to engage in environmental behavior if they are paid by the hour, a form of compensation that leads people to see their time as money. Using experimental methodology, we show that making the economic value of time salient lowers intentions to engage in environmental behavior (Studies 2 & 3) and actual recycling (Study 4). In Study 4, students led to see their time as money were five times less likely to recycle scrap paper when given the opportunity. In Study 5, we document a mechanism for this effect—individuals who are paid by the hour are chronically aware of the opportunity costs associated with engaging in everyday environmental behavior. Together, this research suggests that environmental decisions are shaped by viewing time as money, potentially shedding light on patterns of environmental behavior across time and around the world.

View record

Exploring parental well-being: is childcare associated with parental well-being and what factors can enhance it (2011)

Recently, the idea that children can be detrimental to the well-being of their parents has gained popularity both amongst researchers and lay individuals. The previous research on parental well-being, however, has not provided any conclusive evidence in favour of this popular perception, and there is some research suggesting that parents might actually experience some benefits to their well-being as a result of having children. In addition, very little is known about the demographic and psychological factors that predict parental well-being. By overcoming various limitations of previous research designs, in the present research we examined whether taking care of children was associated with better cognitive and affective well-being outcomes. We further explored whether SES and child-centrism (i.e., the tendency of parents to put the well-being of their children before their own) were predictors of parental well-being. In a sample of 186 parents, we found that parents reported both more meaning and more positive affect when they were taking care of their children as compared to the rest of their day. We also showed that SES was negatively associated with the meaning parents experienced during childcare, a relationship that was mediated by the perceived opportunity cost of childcare. Finally, we demonstrated that when they were taking care of their children, more child-centric parents reported both more meaning and more positive affect than less child-centric parents. The implications of those findings for enhancing the well-being of parents as well as for improving future research on parental well-being are discussed.

View record

News Releases

This list shows a selection of news releases by UBC Media Relations over the last 5 years.

Current Students & Alumni

This is a small sample of students and/or alumni that have been supervised by this researcher. It is not meant as a comprehensive list.

Membership Status

Member of G+PS
View explanation of statuses

Program Affiliations

Academic Unit(s)


If this is your researcher profile you can log in to the Faculty & Staff portal to update your details and provide recruitment preferences.


Discover the amazing research that is being conducted at UBC!