Bryan Caplan  

Honest Measurement

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A Story that Warms My Heart... Behavioral Science vs. Happine...

Arnold isn't happy about measuring happiness. His objections, and my replies:

Happiness research cannot make behavioral predictions at all. It consists of taking meaningless surveys, and the most it can do is make predictions about the "findings" of other meaningless surveys.

This reminds me of the old saying, "What good is happiness, can it buy money?" If happiness research can't make behavioral predictions, then behavioral research can't make happiness predictions. It's hardly obvious that one is more worth knowing than the other, still less that knowing about happiness is worthless.

Or is Arnold saying that talk about happiness is inherently "meaningless"? All I can say in response is that it seems perfectly meaningful to me. When someone says "I feel happy today," or "I have led a sad life," I know what they mean. Don't you?

If you ask somebody to rate their happiness on a scale, you have no idea what the answer means. Are respondents reporting a feeling, or an evaluation of how they think they ought to feel? Are they reporting something instantaneous, or something that also combines looking backward and/or forward?

There is some ambiguity in all questions. The obvious solution is to fiddle around with the wording and see if the results change. Happiness researchers have done this to some extent. If you think they haven't done good enough, then you should tell them the Right Way to Ask.

Incidentally, the same problem arises in ALL economic statistics. Do we calculate the unemployment rate by observing behavior? No, we call people on the phone and ASK them if they are unemployed. Is that a problem? Of course. Does it make unemployment numbers meaningless? Hardly. Imperfection does not imply worthlessness. When you decide how much weight to put on any statistics, you always have to make a judgment call about the extent to which respondents had the desire and/or incentive to lie.

You have no more basis for saying that "Married people are happier than single people" than you do for claiming that Bernie's marginal utility from the millionth scoop of ice cream exceeds my marginal utility from the first bread crumb.

Sure I do. While I can see why people might exaggerate their happiness, it's hard to see why married people would be more inclined to exaggerate than single people. In contrast, Bernie had a clear motivation to lie about his marginal utility of ice cream - to make other economists praise his sense of humor.


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COMMENTS (2 to date)
English Professor writes:

I've been following the conversation on happiness research, and I sense a subtext that isn't getting discussed. At the core of this debate is the question, "does an increase in income make one happier?" Now, I can think of two reasons for asking this question. One is moral and philosophical (perhaps also psychological): the Judeo-Christian tradition, going back at least to Ecclesiastes, tells us that things of this earth cannot satisfy us; one can ask why this should be the case. It is a fascinating moral/psychological matter. The second issue is political: most political theorists would say that human happiness is the true end of all social arrangements, and so, it can be argued, happiness rather than wealth-creation should direct our approach to political economy. In short, if increases in wealth or income do not make us happier, then we should feel free to place limits on the wealth of any individual and redistribute the excess to those worse off financially. This, it is assumed, will not hurt the wealthy, for their happiness is unlikely to be increased by increased wealth, but it may increase the happiness of the poor. In recent years I've run across a couple of people working in this field (mainly in Philosophy departments), and income redistribution was in fact their ultimate aim.

The problem then, as I see it, is the disguised bias of many researchers, who have political ends in mind while claiming to pursue disinterested analysis of human responses.

dsquared writes:

Seems to me that Arnold is completely wrong about this one. There are plenty of behavioural predictions that can be made by happiness research because we know of a number of objectively observable behaviours which correlate with subjective happiness.

For example, subjectively happy people don't commit suicide as often as subjectively unhappy people. Nor do their marriages break up, nor do they become alcoholics and nor do they suffer mental illness as much. The surveys of subjective happiness match up surprisingly well to these objective correlates (or possibly unsurprisingly well if you're not a sceptic about surveys).

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