by Don Boudreaux on March 15, 2011

in Curious Task, Economics, Scientism, Standard of Living

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Roger Cohen is impressed with modern-day “happiness” researchers who – basing their judgments upon responses that ordinary people offer to survey questions asked by these researchers – conclude that economic prosperity does little to make people happier (“The Happynomics of Life,” March 13).

Mr. Cohen and these researchers should read Bourgeois Dignity (2010) – the latest book by economist/historian/linguist/rhetorician/philosopher Deirdre McCloskey.  She writes the following about the methods used by typical ‘happiness’ researchers who employ “self-reported declarations” about how each surveyed person ranks his or her happiness on a scale of, say, one to three, with “two” being “pretty happy” and “three” being “very happy”: “An interviewer surprises you on the street, puts a microphone in your face, and demands to know ‘Which is it, 1, 2, or 3?’  Even the technical problems with such calculations are formidable.  For one thing, a noninterval scale is being treated as an interval scale, as though a unit of 1.0 between 2 and 3 were God’s own view of the differences between ‘pretty’ and ‘very.’  It would be like measuring temperature by asking people to rate things as ‘pretty hot’ = 2, ‘very hot’ = 3, and expecting to build a science of thermodynamics on the ‘measurements’ thus generated” [p. 63].

Such a research method is a most unhappy means for achieving deeper understanding.

Donald J. Boudreaux

A slightly different, yet complementary, objection (there are many) to ‘happiness’ studies is offered by my colleague Dan Klein in a recent e-mail to me:

Adam Smith was average height for his day. If asked how tall he is, he would say, “average.”

But today he would be short.

The respondents’ scale is context dependent.


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