Social Policy and Subjective Well-Being

Big Psychology Grants is an occasional series featuring large-scale studies and other notable programs in psychological science. This month, we profile a center that will extend the behavioral economics research to public policy in health and aging.

Subjective well-being is a hot topic in the behavioral sciences, and only getting hotter. How people feel about their place in modern society — and how to make them feel better about it — is a topic that concerns economists, sociologists, and policymakers. As researchers from these fields look for ways to conceptualize, measure, and influence well-being, they’ve found, to no one’s surprise, that psychologists have a lot to say. But they don’t always appreciate the way psychologists — with their focus on the individual and their overwhelming empirical data from studies of real people — say it.

Among those bridging the gap is Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology at Princeton University. Kahneman is best known for his research with the late Amos Tversky on cognitive heuristics, biases, and framing — research for which Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. The field of behavioral economics — which aims to supplement normative theories about rational, self-interested individuals with descriptive studies of economic decisionmaking — rests in large part on Kahneman and Tversky’s innovations, as well as the work of a few unorthodox economists who embraced their findings. “The dialog between psychology and economics is a great deal more fruitful and developed and rich than it was 25 years ago,” Kahneman says.

Now Kahneman and his colleagues are trying to influence economists in another way. They are developing a method of quantifying the subjective well-being of large populations and subpopulations, in the hope that it can play a meaningful role in the shaping of social policy. Kahneman has long been interested in what he calls “experienced utility.” His early research in this area explored biases in how individuals evaluate past experiences — for instance, the so-called “peak-end effect” in remembering pain. Now he and his colleagues are aiming to understand how subjective well-being varies across populations.

To that end they have developed the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM), which uses imaginative reconstruction and quantitative evaluation to provide a concise summary of daily activities and their subjective valences. Because it is relatively easy to use — it costs little and takes about 45 minutes to administer — Kahneman and his colleagues have argued that the DRM could be widely administered and used to calculate “National Well-Being Accounts.” Such accounts would complement more traditional measures of health and wealth such as the Gross Domestic Product.

In the fall of 2004, Kahneman and his colleagues were awarded a grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of $1.8 million over five years to establish the Center for Research on Experience and Well Being (CREW) at Princeton. The goal of CREW — one of 10 NIA Edward R. Roybal Centers for Applied Gerontology — is to extend the work on the DRM in several new directions. One line of research aims to combine the DRM with the American Time Use Survey, a major ongoing study of how Americans use their time, conducted by the US Department of Labor. Another line of research, now in the data-analysis stage, uses the DRM to compare the well-being of 800 women in Columbus, Ohio, to the wellbeing of 800 women in a city in France. Kahneman and his colleagues are also seeking funding to study the use of physiological measurements — specifically, cortisone levels — to calibrate self-reported well-being across cultures. “It’s high-risk research and we’re not really expecting huge payoffs, but if there are payoffs they may be substantial,” Kahneman says.

Although work on the DRM has been supported primarily by NIA, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), private foundations such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and non-governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization have also provided some support. A grant from NIA in 2002 for research on the “Affective profiles of typical experiences” resulted in a widely-reported study of the DRM that was published in Science in 2004. The study showed that the DRM accurately captured several non-intuitive aspects of subjective daily wellbeing — such as the V-shaped diurnal pattern of tiredness — that had previously been found using more expensive and time-consuming methods, such as the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues. And the DRM produced some results that contradicted other methods of retrospective survey, such as the fact that spending time with one’s children — often ranked in surveys as one of life’s most satisfying activities — in fact ranks near the bottom in terms of experienced enjoyment.

“Many of the current measures of well-being are partially flawed or very narrow, and my hope is that the center will help develop improved measures,” said Richard Suzman, director of NIA’s Behavior and Social Research Program. “Well-being is a very important end-point for the National Institutes of Health and for medicine. It’s not just how long people survive, but the quality of their life. Ideally I think we need measures of well-being that can be used across different populations or subpopulations, whether it’s race, class, ethnic group, or national groups.” Such information, he says, would help the federal government focus its limited resources on health problems that have the biggest impact on well-being and the greatest possibilities for amelioration.

The NIA Roybal Center program that made CREW possible is overseen by Jeffrey Elias, a psychologist whose background involves more than navigating the federal process. After several decades of research on the psychology of aging, Elias joined NIH in 2001 and then shifted to NIA in 2003. The program was established by Congress in 1993 in honor of Edward R. Roybal, an advocate for the elderly who served in the House of Representatives from 1960 to 1993. It is essentially pragmatic, supporting “translational research” and so-called “use-inspired basic research.” “The overall goal is to try and take basic information and translate it into something that can be made useful for the public,” said Elias.

Princeton’s Roybal Center supports the work of a small, multidisciplinary team of four psychologists and an economist that has been working together for six years. Only two of the CREW members are in residence at Princeton: Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger, who directs the Princeton University Survey Research Center and has published widely on education, labor, and other issues in economics. The others are scattered around the country. David Schkade is an organizational psychologist who teaches in the management school of the University of California, San Diego, and has advised the federal government on incorporating the value of life into cost-benefit analyses. Norbert Schwarz is a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, whose work on the interplay of emotion and reason has implications for understanding how people respond to surveys. And Arthur Stone is a clinical psychologist at the Stony Brook University, who has developed a technique called Ecological Momentary Assessment to study the relationships between stress, coping, and health.

The DRM is not without its critics. Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, questions whether the instrument has been sufficiently validated to be applied on a large scale. She points out that the 2004 Science article’s comparison of the DRM to ESM was not within the same population. She also says that the DRM’s focus on a single day provides an excessively narrow view of well-being. “They’re taking one day out of a person’s life and using that as a basis for understanding what that person’s affect is about, what their well-being is about,” she says. Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, says the DRM is appropriate for some broad questions but that it fails to capture the rich, fine-grained detail that techniques such as the ESM can provide.

Kahneman believes the DRM has been adequately validated at this point. “There is widespread misunderstanding of how validation should be done,” he says. “The DRM is not intended as a test of individual happiness. It is a research instrument that is supposed to produce statements about groups.” As such it is more important, Kahneman believes, that the overall patterns of tiredness measured by the DRM match those measured by the ESM — which they seem to do — than whether an individual’s retrospective reconstruction of her experience of commuting, for example, correlates highly with self-reported experience at the time. He also points out that, unlike scattered samples of experience provided by the ESM, the DRM provides full accounts of daily activity. “In fact, the low cost of the DRM and the possibility of getting descriptions of complete days permits analyses that are much more fine-grained than anything that has been possible with ESM,” he says.

All research on subjective well-being is based implicitly or explicitly on a vision of how individual well-being relates to the well-being of society as a whole. “There is a moral element to the concept of well-being that no one can avoid,” Kahneman said. Even the most hedonically oriented researcher would reject sadism, for instance, as a route to well-being, regardless of how much pleasure it gave the practitioner, he said. One of the implications of Kahneman’s work — both his current work on well-being and his classic research with Tversky — is that a good society should take into account factors beyond the narrowly economic when framing social policy. By presenting their work in a way that mainstream and policymakers economists will recognize as valid, Kahneman and his colleagues hope to bring that vision of society closer to reality.

Editor’s Note: Kahneman will deliver an invited address, “Steps Toward a Science of Well-Being,” at the APS 18th Annual Convention this May in New York.

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