Arnold Kling  

Challenge to Cowen and Gilbert

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I hereby challenge Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gilbert to debate whether happiness research constitutes an empirical science. Tyler pointed to this essay by Gilbert.


if the Red Sox and the Yankees were scoreless until Manny Ramirez hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, you can be sure that Boston fans would remember it as the best game of the season. Memories are dominated by their most powerful—and not their most typical—instances. Just as a glorious game-winning homer can erase our memory of 8 1/2 dull innings

My basic issue with happiness research, which arises in this paragraph, is that it does not have an operational definition of what it is measuring.

I think that statements like "X makes people happy" are faux-empirical. You have no business making such claims when you don't have a clear definition of happiness to begin with.

When you ask somebody to rate their happiness, what does the answer mean? Does it indicate a universal, biological human phenomenon? I doubt it. Would a Yankee fan be happy after this game?

But if whether a Ramirez walk-off home run makes you happy or not depends on which team you were rooting for, can we be confident about generalizations that we make about whether being a father makes you happy (the main subject of Gilbert's essay)? I don't see how.


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The author at The Burden of Proof in a related article titled Against Happiness "Research" writes:
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Isn't this a rerun of the debates that discredited benthamite utilitarianism and left us with the subjectivist preference-satisfaction version?

knzn writes:

Before psychologist Gilbert starts getting into debates with economists, someone better give him a refresher course in basic economics. From the essay cited above:

“…when something makes us happy we are willing to pay a lot for it, which is why the worst Belgian chocolate is more expensive than the best Belgian tofu.”

I kind of get his point, but the statement (as currently worded) is wrong. It would only be true if both products were produced by monopolies. Otherwise, the reason that chocolate is more expensive than tofu must be because it costs more to produce. If chocolate could be produced as cheaply as tofu, then a competitor would undercut the prices of the worst Belgian chocolatier and take away all his business by selling slightly better chocolate at a slightly lower price. (Of course you might argue that government regulation gives chocolatiers some monopoly power, but it seems to me that the worst Belgian chocolatier must have direct competitors in non-EU countries, so I don’t really buy that argument.)

Fabio Rojas writes:

"I think that statements like "X makes people happy" are faux-empirical. You have no business making such claims when you don't have a clear definition of happiness to begin with."

This is odd coming from a guy who champions introspection.

But seriuosly, there's a couple of ways to see if survey items that solicit self reports of happiness are useful. One is to see if responses have plausible correlations. For example, are people undergoing divorce less happy than people who are in stable marriages? Are the recently fired less happy than the gainfully employed?

Another approach is to ask a battery of questions that get at different aspects of happiness, then do a factor analysis of the responses. For example, you could ask about "overall hapiness," recent happiness trends, specific emotions and belifes ("I often feel like things are getting better") and emotional responses to specific events. My hypothesis is that many of these are driven by H - the happiness factor, which might be described as the tendency to feel positive and optimistic about yoourself and the world around you.

Finally, you can do "cognitive analysis" of the survey question. You can actually ask people to talk out loud about their thoughts as they fill out the survey. You will learn what they think consitutes happiness.

I bet if you did all this, you would probably find a happiness factor that drives responses to other happiness questions. That would be proof enough for me that happiness questions measure something that is not trivial.

alcibiades writes:

Self-reported happiness scores are not a very accurate metric. But I hope this doesn't mean you're discounting the study of what makes us happy, and how we can make people happiest. Revealed preference -- what people do when given the choice -- represents our best model of happiness, but its resolution is only so far. And we know from introspection that happiness doesn't perfectly correspond to these choices. Far from it.

Fabio Rojas writes:

"Self-reported happiness scores are not a very accurate metric"

How do you know that? Seriously, I don't know this literature and I can tell two persuasive stories about happiness self-reports. In one story, hapiness is a vague word that evokes too many responses. In the other story, happiness is a word that appeals to common sense and elicits the same responses from people. which story is true?

Robert Speirs writes:

It would be much easier and more comprehensible to assess what makes men UNhappy. Self-reporting would be more reliable and comparisons would make more sense. For instance, instead of asking "does it make you happy to have the temperature at 72 degrees F?", you could ask "Is it too hot yet?" while cranking up the heat.

Half Sigma writes:

Indeed, I still remember Gary Carter's game winning home run in the bottom of the 9th at the NY Met's opening day, 1985.

Half Sigma writes:

And leaving the topic of baseball, the blog authors certainly do seem to think that happiness is a libertarian economy--kind of arbitrary.

Peter G. Klein writes:

Arnold, I'm not sure I understand your basic methodological point. Social scientists work with latent constructs all the time. These could be survey data based on subjective responses (worker perceptions of job satisfaction, customer perceptions of product quality, whatever) or latent variables constructed from observable proxies. Take entrepreneurship, for example. Nobody can tell you what it is, precisely, but we can build constructs out of measures of new business starts, self-employment, patent filings, etc. Does this mean that the vast empirical literature on entrepreneurship is also "faux-empirical"?

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