Arnold Kling  

Subjective Relative Measurement

Height and Happiness... Economic Turbulence...

John Quiggin writes,

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.

One way to respond to this problem would be to interview groups of children in different classes at school, and asked them the question Don suggests “On a scale of 1 to 10, how tall are you?”. My guess is that the data would look pretty much like reported data on the relationship between happiness and income.

That is, within the groups, you’d find that kids who were old relative to their classmates tended to be report higher numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates (for the obvious reason that, on average, the older ones would in fact be taller than their classmates).

But, for all groups, I suspect you’d find that the median response was something like 7. Even though average age is higher for higher classes, average reported height would not change (or not change much).

So you’d reach the conclusion that height was a subjective construct depending on relative, rather than absolute, age.

His point is that happiness research measures happiness the way this hypothetical survey measures height. It is a good way of illustrating my contention that happiness research is measurement without measurement.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods

COMMENTS (8 to date)
dearieme writes:

Happiness is not one-dimensional: height is.

anon writes:

See the comments thread over at CT for a whole lot of counterargument.

Nathan Smith writes:

While happiness research certainly has its weaknesses, certain findings are interesting, say, that the loss of happiness from losing a job is much greater than that attributable to the lost income, or that marriage leads to a brief surge in happiness, followed by a decline, but not back to the pre-married level. Standard utility theory can't really substitute for these kinds of insights.

mobile writes:

Great minds think alike.

Coincidentally, so do Arnold's and Bryan's.

(Thank you, I'll be here all week.)

dearieme writes:

Just a speculation, but is it possible that the side of politics (The Left) that generally claims that intelligence is impossible to measure and certainly bears no relation to IQ, is also the side that believes that measuring happiness is a piece of cake?

Bruce K. Britton writes:

There are four different Levels of Measurement, the mathematics and interpretation of which have been worked out in detail. Economists certainly use all of them, perhaps sometimes without knowing that they are.

An example is Interval Measurement, which is used in the measurement of temperature, as in the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales.

Taking it from the top, there are:

Ratio Measurement, the one often used in economics, which allows all the arithmetic operations; an example is the Kelvin scale of temperature, which starts at absolute zero.

But also used in economics and the other sciences are:

Interval Measurement, which allows interpretation of ratios of differences, so that, for example, one difference can be said to be twice another, also arithmetic means are interpretable, as well as medians and modes. Can you think of an example used in economics? ( HInt: start by thinking of economic concepts analogous to temperature, like things heating up or cooling down; if such things have a bottom analogous to absolute zero, they are ratio measurements, otherwise not.)

Ordinal Measurement, which allows comparisons of greater and less, also equality and inequality; here the central tendency can be expressed by the median. Examples are the Mohs Scale (of mineral hardness), measures of attitudes and preferences (some economists use those, I think) and many, many other constructs in psychology and other social sciences, including economics.

Finally, Nominal Measurement, which put things into categories, for which the mode is the meaningful measure of central tendency. I'd be willing to bet that economists put things into categories; if so they are using nominal measurement scales.

I hope this is helpful.

Matt writes:

There is pleasure activation and there is general well being.

Pleasure activation can be measured with an instrument. However, if your pleasure center is constantly activated, then get into rehab before you die.

Scott Scheule writes:

I fail to see how attempting to measure happiness differs in any appreciable way from economists' attempt to measuring utility.

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