Monday, July 21, 2014

Should researchers recognize that emotional states are influenced by life evaluations?

There is nothing novel about the idea that people who have a positive frame of mind about the opportunities and challenges that life offers tend to experience positive emotions as they go about their daily lives. 

We are not surprised that people who smile and laugh a lot, obtain enjoyment from whatever they are doing, feel they are learning or doing something interesting and feel that they are treated with respect tend to rate their lives highly. If such people don’t consider their current lives as close to the best possible, it is likely to be because they are optimistic about the potential for their lives to get even better. It might be reasonable to suppose that their positive emotions reflect frames of mind stemming from their dispositions and their evaluations of their lives as well as from their current experiences.

However, when I looked up “positive emotion”, “frame of mind” and “research” on Google I found a lot of references to research on cognitive approaches to improving well-being, but I didn’t see any on life evaluations as a determinant of positive emotion. Researchers do not seem to have perceived life evaluations – for example, responses to survey questions asking people to rate their lives between best possible and worst possible – as frames of mind. Emotional state variables (positive emotion and negative emotion) are sometimes included in analyses which seek to explain life evaluations, but I am not aware of studies which view life evaluations as a potential explanatory variable.

The question posed in this post is linked to the finding in my last post that average positive emotion ratings in countries in the former Soviet Union are lower, while those in Latin American countries are higher, than might be expected on the basis of negative emotion ratings in those regions. I suggested that the most likely reason for this was the development of shared frames of mind by people in those regions. That poses the question of whether these shared frames reflect life evaluations or something more profound.

Which variables should be included in a regression model to assess the influence of frames of mind on positive emotions at a national level? The most obvious measure of positive emotions to use is the Gallup measure which reflects the extent to which people are well-rested, smile and laugh a lot, obtain enjoyment from what they are doing, are learning or doing something interesting and feel that they are treated with respect. It seemed appropriate to include the Gallup measure of negative emotion (reflecting pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger) as an explanatory variable to take account of experience that might lead people to have a negative frame of mind. Regional variables were included for reasons just discussed. Gallup data was used to reflect average life evaluations at a national level (Cantril ladder).

Three other frame of mind variables were included because they have previously been found to be significant determinants of both life evaluation and positive emotion ratings. (See, for example, the research by John Helliwell and Shun Wang presented in Table 2.1 of Chapter 2 of World Happiness Report 2013.) These variables were satisfaction with freedom, perceptions of social support and generosity. All data was obtained from the online appendix to Chapter 2 of the World Happiness Report.

Separate regional variables were included in the initial regressions but only Latin America, the Former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe and Middle East and North Africa were found to be significant. The final regression model explains about 70 percent of the variation in positive emotion at a national level. The results of the analysis are reflected in the Figure below. (All estimated coefficients were significantly different from zero at the 95% level. Further information can be made available on request.)

Two important points are evident from the Figure:
  • The relatively low positive emotion ratings of people in the former Soviet Union and the positive ratings of people in Latin America are still evident after controlling for several other variables. These anomalies cannot be explained in terms of life evaluations or the other frame of mind variables considered.
  • The influence of life evaluations on positive emotion involves more than just satisfaction with freedom, perceptions of social support and generosity.
I acknowledged above that frames of mind can stem from dispositions as well as from life evaluations. In retrospect, I should also have noted that dispositions can affect life evaluations.
A paper just published by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald explores the role of genetics in influencing average life evaluations at a national level (“National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A cautious exploration”, July 2014, IZA DP 8300). The paper suggests that genetic distance from Denmark is a significant determinant of life satisfaction.
If the genetic influence on disposition had an impact on positive affect in addition to its influence on life evaluations (and other variables including negative affect and regional variables) that should be reflected in the residuals of the regression described above. However, the residuals for Denmark and countries that are genetically close to Denmark (Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland) are small and mainly negative.

It would be interesting to see whether inclusion of the genetic variable in the analysis affects the results obtained. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why don't we see a close relationship between low negative emotion and high positive emotion?

Think about how you felt yesterday. Did you feel much pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger? If you felt less of those negative emotions than the world average, then do you think it would be reasonable to predict that your experience of positive emotions might be higher than the world average? The relevant positive experiences are smiling and laughing a lot, feeling enjoyment, well-rested and treated with respect, and learning or doing something interesting.

Apparently that prediction is not as reasonable as I thought it would be. People in countries where average levels of negative emotion are relatively low do not necessarily have relatively high average levels of positive emotion. This is apparent in the Figure below which has been drawn from data from recent polls conducted by the Gallup organisation.

The Figure does show an inverse correlation between positive and negative emotion, but most of the action is at the upper end of negative emotion. It seems to be much less common for people with high negative emotion to also experience high positive emotion than it is for people who experience low negative emotion to also experience low positive emotion.

Interestingly, the chart also shows that the average of positive emotion for people in Bhutan - the home of Gross National Happiness (GNH) - is low by comparison with both of its giant neighbours, China and India. Gallup has suggested that Bhutan’s low score on positive emotion is attributable to the fact that the percentage of the population who feel that they are treated with a “great deal of respect” was the lowest for all countries included in the 2013 survey. Perhaps this reflects the restrictions on individual liberty imposed by the government in pursuit of its GNH objective. It is also possible that the GNH objective gives participants in happiness surveys an incentive to use their responses to tell the government that they are not happy with its performance. 
However, the main point I want to make concerns the salient characteristics of the countries which combine low negative emotion with low positive emotion or unusually high positive emotion. Most of the countries in the first category were formerly members of the Soviet Union (shown with red diamonds). By contrast, most Latin American countries (shown with purple diamonds) have unusually high positive emotion scores.

The most likely explanation of the different emotional experiences of people in the former Soviet Union and Latin America is the development of shared frames of mind (cultural framing). Sonja Lyubomirsky has observed that expressions of happiness or success in Russia are often perceived as inviting envy, resentment, and suspicion, at least partly because there is a cultural belief in Russia that anyone who is happy or successful might have used immoral means for achieving these states. (Reported in a recent article on happiness aversion by Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers). I guess such beliefs could have been reinforced by living under communism and the regimes that have followed the fall of communism. It is also possible that negative emotions would be understated in a culture where people had incentives to adopt a “must not complain” attitude to life.

With regard to Latin America, Jon Clifton, the author of the report of the Gallup survey suggests:
That so many people are reporting positive emotions in Latin America at least partly reflects the cultural tendency in the region to focus on the positives in life”.

There is evidence (for example in a report by Eduardo Loro) that when people in Latin America are asked about their health, they tend to report a higher level of satisfaction than is warranted, given objective indicators of their health status.

The existence of such a cultural bias does not mean that the high positive emotion reported for Latin America is not genuinely felt. Research by Mohsen Joshanloo provides some evidence of lower happiness aversion in Latin America than in many other parts of the world. It seems reasonable to predict that the high positive emotion in Latin America would provide health benefits e.g. lower rates of hypertension, as in other parts of the world (see research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find studies that control for the relevant variables to confirm whether that is the case. There are studies suggesting that rates of hypertension are relatively high in some Latin American countries, but that seems to be attributable to obesity and other risk factors.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

We are good?

I was asked that question by a waitress in the restaurant at Holiday Inn in Port Moresby a few months ago. I told her that I was good and asked whether she was good. She responded: “We are good”.

This novel use of the hospital ‘we’ seemed amusing. But the incident came to mind just now because of the potential for ‘good’ to mean different things.

How do you respond when someone greets you by asking: How are you? There was a time when I nearly always said “I’m good”, but I became more conscious of what I was saying after some clever person responded that he was not asking about my morals. In retrospect, I should have told him that I was referring to my emotional state, which was good because I was in good health and also felt somewhat virtuous and competent.

A few years ago I wrote a post on the topic: Is our inner nature good? What I wrote still seems ok; perhaps I could even claim it is good. I ended up more or less endorsing the view that our inner nature must be good because moral beliefs and motivations come from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop. Those intuitions enable and constrain the social construction of virtues and values. 
There is scientific support for that line of thinking, but a scientific approach cannot take us far in considering our inner natures.

It may be worth considering why a scientific approach cannot be particularly enlightening about our own inner natures. One basic reason is that we live our lives as players rather than spectators. If we try to observe ourselves in the way we observe other people we tend to make predictions that get in the way of our intentions. We cannot escape the fact that our perceptions influence our behaviour, and vice versa. If I perceive myself as the kind of person who behaves in a particular way, then that will influence my intentions and how I behave; and if I change my behaviour, that will influence how I perceive myself.

In order to become more like the person you would like to become, you need to know how and to “do it like you mean it” (to use a phrase I heard often as a child while helping grown-ups with farm work). A story told by Tim Gallwey in The Inner Game of Golf comes to mind to illustrate the point (p183). A golfer came to Gallwey for coaching to improve his golf swing. After the golfer demonstrated his dreadful swing, Gallwey asked him how he would like to be able to swing. When the golfer started to explain, Gallwey asked him to demonstrate. That resulted in an immediate improvement in performance.

Now, it is fairly obvious that people can’t become experts in any field by just pretending to have expertise. The golfer only had the potential to improve his swing instantaneously because he knew how to do so.

Going back a step, how do we know we can trust our intuitions about what kind of person we would like to be? Our perceptions about our inner natures must influence our thinking about what kinds of persons we would like to be. There are many different stories we can tell ourselves about our inner natures. If you tell yourself that “the flesh warreth against the spirit” then I guess your goal must be to overcome the temptations of the flesh.  If you tell yourself that your body is just a machine designed to make you happy then I guess your goal would be to keep all the parts in good working order and become a proficient machine operator. If you tell yourself that all sensations are illusory or impermanent and that attachment to them causes suffering, then I guess your goal would be to become equanimous. If you tell yourself that you have an authentic self which grows into a strong, healthy and peaceful presence when you practice unconditional acceptance of all your bodily sensations, then I guess your goal is to get into the flow and let that happen.

Although it must be fairly obvious that I think some of those stories would serve me better than others, I don’t think it is possible to prove any of them to be false. Even so, it seems to me that plausibility is still an important consideration in choosing which stories to accept. As a general rule small leaps of faith are probably better than large leaps of faith. That thought occurred to me as I was reading Michael Winn’s book, Way of the Inner Smile, a few days ago. For example, the following passage explaining how the inner smile differs from feelings of love and compassion seems to me to be a plausible description of personal experience:
“The Inner Smile is probably something closer to the experience of unconditional acceptance. The seed quality of unconditional acceptance is smiled through the outer biological layers of the self in towards the core of one’s being, and this generates a counter-wave of smiling energy that emanates back out from the core and flows in the chi (subtle energy) channels of the body”. (p 55)

The plausibility of that story relies on personal experience rather than on scientific verification of the existence of such things as smiling energy and chi channels. Some ideas in the book seem to me to be less plausible, but it would distract from the points I am trying to make if I elaborate now.

So, what points am I trying to make? Feeling good is about competence and virtue as well as health. Feeling good is about becoming more like the person you want to become. In order to develop a strong sense of what kind of person you would like to become it may be helpful to find a story about your inner nature that you find plausible. When considering your inner nature, the most relevant test of plausibility is personal experience rather than science. And we should not forget to smile.

Lucy Lopez has provided the following comment:
 You wrote: "Feeling good is about competence and virtue as well as health. Feeling good is about becoming more like the person you want to become. In order to develop a strong sense of what kind of person you would like to become it may be helpful to find a story about your inner nature that you find plausible. When considering your inner nature, the most relevant test of plausibility is personal experience rather than science. And we should not forget to smile."

Firstly, the thinking mind is almost never inactive and so intervenes in every experience.  So much so that most people find it hard to distinguish between their thoughts, beliefs and ideas and their FEELINGS.  In fact, most find it hard to actually allow themselves to feel, almost always reporting on what they think rather than how they feel.  

So, for instance, if I ask you how you feel and you say 'I'm good'. that is more than likely an expression of the idea of 'I'm okay' or 'There's nothing terribly wrong with me' rather than an expression of how you're really feeling.

But it is possible to get in touch with our feelings and acknowledge them even when we sometimes may not have any existing words for them.  When you really allow yourself to FEEL, or should I say to ACKNOWLEDGE how you're feeling, it can be quite a revelation.  That's because we have been so conditioned to deny, distrust and hide our feelings.  

When we do allow ourselves to tune into our feelings fully and acknowledge them, we can do two things:

1. We can decide if we want to continue feeling the way we are feeling or not.  If we want to continue feeling the same way, there is nothing more to do.  If we don't want to feel the way we're feeling, we can ask the question: How would I LIKE to feel?  Without presuming we know the answer (in other words, without resorting to thought/ideas, we allow that feeling to arise spontaneously.  Again, it may often surprise us how different that feeling is to what we might THINK we want to feel.  (BTW, this is a technique I teach).

2. We can look for the thoughts and beliefs that underlie our feelings and examine these for their validity, whereupon we might consider different thoughts and different beliefs.

The point to all this is that you don't need to rely on some intellectual concept of the kind of person you'd like to be.  Sure, you may begin by thinking about it but it is far more effective, efficient and natural to FEEL the kind of person you want to be because more than likely, you'll be guided by what feels good i.e. peaceful, joyous, blissful, equanimous even...The kind of states you experience during meditation as Voltaire describes it:

'Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objuectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity'.

Always happy to respond to your ideas :)

Lucy's blog:  "Get Enlightened Today"

Monday, June 30, 2014

Why are economists talking about income distribution?

The distribution of income was once at the core of economics because it helped to explain differences in growth of wealth and population in different nations. Interest in income distribution then shifted to the implications of income inequality for social justice and aggregate happiness. Around the middle of the 20th Century, however, most economists realized that they had no particular expertise in contemplating such matters. Economists retained some interest in income distribution because many governments pursued distributional objectives and it made sense to consider how such objectives might be pursued at least cost. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that income distribution became somewhat tangential to the main interests of most economists.

The situation seems to have changed radically over the last few months, following publication of Thomas Piketty’s book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. The interest that leading economists have shown in the book seems to stem from two factors: the increased public interest in income distribution since the GFC; and respect for the amount of intellectual effort that the author has put into his book.

While the author may deserve some praise for his statistical efforts, in my view he does not deserve any praise for the clarity of his exposition. The main point being made in the book, over and over again, is that r (the rate of return on capital) tends to be greater than g (the rate of growth of national income) and that r > g  implies that “the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high”. I mistakenly thought that an explanation of the significance of this inequality might flow from the two “fundamental laws of capitalism” expounded by the author.

The first “fundamental law” is merely a definition of capital’s share of national income:
α = r × β , where α is capital’s share of national income, r is the rate of return on capital and β is the capital/income ratio (K/Y).
Although r > g could imply that β will rise (if we make the heroic assumption that the capital stock grows by r% per annum) it is still possible for α to fall if r is falling.  
Piketty’s second “fundamental law” is about the long-run implications of savings and economic growth rates for the ratio of capital to income:
β = s / g    where s is the savings rate.
When you put the first and second laws together you get:
α = r × (s / g)  .
That implies that what happens to capital’s share depends on what happens to r, s and g. The significance of r > g is not obvious in that context either. 

I am not alone in having difficulty in grasping the significance of r > g. Scott Sumner noted on The Money Illusion the difficulties he experienced with Piketty’s verbal explanation.

However, even if the distribution of income is becoming more unequal, why should that be of concern to us? It seems to me that the best answer is that distributional considerations are relevant to judgements about the quality of different societies. When I looked at these issues on this blog a couple of years ago I concluded that the distribution of opportunities is the relevant variable. Other people may make different judgements about such matters, but I find it hard to see how a society can be judged to  be better if it sacrifices opportunities available to low income earners in order to achieve greater income equality.

If we are interested in the economic opportunities of people who rely solely on labour income, it seems to me that Robert Solow made a highly relevant point in his review of Piketty’s book, entitled “Thomas Piketty is Right”:
“The labor share of national income is arithmetically the same thing as the real wage divided by the productivity of labor. Would you rather live in a society in which the real wage was rising rapidly but the labor share was falling (because productivity was increasing even faster), or one in which the real wage was stagnating, along with productivity, so the labor share was unchanging? The first is surely better on narrowly economic grounds: you eat your wage, not your share of national income. But there could be political and social advantages to the second option.”
(The significance of this point has previously been noted by others, including David Henderson.)

However, I don’t think we can assume that an increase in capital’s share will always be associated with higher real wages. What happens if technological progress makes capital a close substitute for labour? If a substantial component of the capital of the future can be thought of as a work-force of robots, the economic consequences might be a little bit like introducing slave labour to compete with the existing workforce. Real wages might fall under such a scenario, even though national income could be expected to continue to rise.

I wrote about that possibility on this blog a few years ago. It is a more challenging scenario than the one painted by Piketty, but I don’t think we should be losing too much sleep over it. There is still potential under that scenario for nearly everyone to be made better off than at present as a result of the introduction of new labour-saving technology. Governments may need to remain involved in wealth re-distribution to ensure that happens, but there is scope for them to do that in ways that are consistent with a high degree of individual liberty.

The most important point that should be made about Piketty’s book is that it suffers from the limitations of any analysis which seeks to hover in “the economy’s stratosphere, gazing down on the only phenomena visible from such a distant perch – big statistics such as population growth or the share of national income ‘claimed’ by the very rich”. The quoted words are by Donald Boudreaux, who made the point effectively in his review:

“Instead of actually looking at the behavior behind his statistics, the author serves up ad hoc and ultimately unpersuasive theories about the "behavior" of his big statistics themselves, including such hulking impersonal aggregates as the return to capital and the ratio of national wealth to national income. He imagines that such aggregates interact in robotic fashion through a logic of their own, unmoved by individual human initiative, creativity, or choice.”