Monday, January 26, 2015

Are Fijians really happier about their lives than Australians?

This might be an appropriate question to consider on Australia Day.

My attention was aroused when I saw the headline “Global happiness survey shows Fijians are the world’s most content”, because I hadn’t previously seen any happiness data for Fiji. The headline refers to a survey of 65 countries recently conducted by WIN/Gallup. (The Gallup organisation involved is not the one that conducts the Gallup World Poll.)

When I looked further I found that the survey also has happiness data for Papua New Guinea, which shows that people in that country also tend to be relatively happy. By contrast, Australians appear to be relatively unhappy.

The question asked in the survey was: “In general, do you personally feel very happy, happy, neither happy nor unhappy, unhappy or very unhappy about your life?” I have constructed the average happiness ratings in the accompanying Figure by assigning a score of 5 to “very happy”, 4 to “happy”, 3 to “neither happy of unhappy”, 2 to “unhappy” and 1 to “very unhappy”.

I am not sure what to make of the rankings shown in the Figure because they seem to be difficult to square with the findings of other happiness surveys. This may be because the survey question is interpreted differently in different parts of the world.

A central issue, it seems to me, is whether the question is more likely to evoke emotional responses or responses that involve some cognitive input. John Hall and John Helliwell, who have expertise in happiness research, leave no doubt that they believe survey participants respond differently when asked how happy they are than when asked how happy they are with their lives:
“As has been shown in the first and second World Happiness Reports, respondents to surveys recognize the difference between happiness as an emotion and happiness as a judgment about the quality of life as a whole. The responses of individuals to these different questions are highly distinct. A very poor person might report himself to be happy emotionally at a specific time, while also reporting a much lower sense of happiness with life as a whole; and indeed, as we show later, people living in extreme poverty, whether in terms of income or social support, do report low levels of happiness with life as a whole”.

The WIN/Gallup survey appears to be asking people how happy they are with their lives, but it doesn’t seem to be interpreted that way. I used regression analysis in an attempt to explain the findings in terms of Gallup World Poll data on “life evaluation” (relative to the best and worst possible life) and “happiness yesterday”. The analysis was conducted for 60 countries for which some matching data was available. The analysis was not very successful in explaining the WIN/Gallup data: it suggested a positive relationship with the happiness variable and no relationship with the life evaluation variable.

Further analysis suggests that the WIN/Gallup question elicits a particularly positive response in African, South Asian, CIS and Latin American countries.

On Australia Day it might be worth thinking for a moment about the kind of response you are likely to get from an Australian if you ask: “In general, do you personally feel very happy, happy, neither happy nor unhappy, unhappy or very unhappy about your life?”. I expect it would be common to get a response something like: “I’m happy enough about my life, I suppose”. The surveyor interprets that to mean that the respondent is “happy”, whereas the respondent might actually feel very happy about his or her life, but reluctant to appear exuberant unless intoxicated.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How long will the "Clash of Civilizations" last?

My main reason for re-visiting Samuel Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” published in 1993, was to see how Huntington’s thesis is faring these days, in the light of the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism and the rise of Islamic state.

Is such violence attributable to an ongoing clash of values that will always make followers of Islam hostile to Western culture, or is a temporary phenomenon that is likely to gradually diminish as economic opportunities expand in Islamic countries?

In his Foreign Affairs, Huntington “set forth the hypotheses that”:
  • “differences  between civilizations are real and important”;
  • “civilization-consciousness is increasing”;
  • “conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict”;
  • “international relations … will increasingly … become a game in which non-Western civilizations are actors and not simply objects”;
  • “successful political, security and economic international institutions are more likely to develop within civilizations than across civilizations”;
  • “conflicts between groups in different civilizations will become more frequent, more sustained, and more violent than conflicts between groups in the same civilization”;
  • “violent conflicts between groups in different civilizations are the most likely and most dangerous source of escalation that could lead to global wars;
  • “the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between ‘the West and the Rest’;
  • “the elites in some torn non-Western countries will try to make their countries part of the West, but in most cases face major obstacles to accomplishing this; and
  • “a central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states”.

As far as I can remember I was not particularly impressed by Huntington’s thesis at the time it was published. I am still not over-impressed. His labelling of cultures as “civilizations” seems to exaggerate the differences between cultures. I disagree with his view that the “notion that there could be a ‘universal civilization’ is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies”. As I have explained on this blog, it seems to me that there would be widespread agreement among people from different cultural backgrounds about the characteristics of a good society.

However, I have to admit that many of Huntington’s hypotheses look as though they are standing up fairly well in terms of the experience of the last couple of decades. He was spot-on target in pointing out that Western intervention in particular Islamic countries, such as Iraq, would unite other Islamic countries in opposition to the West, even though he did under-estimate the importance of conflict between nations/groups within broad cultural groupings. It is now obvious that he was correct in claiming: “The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe”.

Huntington’s also made some accurate predictions about developments in Russia. His prediction that conditions did not exist for Russia to join the West was accurate. The people in Russia were divided on the issue and the West was wary of embracing Russia. Similarly, he was correct in predicting that relations between Russia and the West “could again become distant and conflictual”, if Russians rejected liberal democracy and began behaving like authoritarian traditionalists.

Huntington was wrong in his prediction that the cultural similarities between Russia and Ukraine would enable those countries to avoid violent conflict over territory, but that error could be attributed to a faulty application of his theory.  His discussion of how Russia was torn between the West and traditional Russian cultural influences can also be applied to Ukraine. The difference is that favourable conditions exist for Ukraine to join the West, even though it is being badly torn in the process.

The main problem I have with Huntington’s thesis is that it pays too little attention to the processes of social change. It seems to imply that countries like Turkey will always be torn between Western influences and traditional cultural influences. It largely overlooks the cultural changes (discussed here) that have occurred in the West, and increasingly in other parts of the world, as economic development has led to the growth of emancipative values such as those supporting freedom of speech.

Most people in the West seem to be able to manage to support emancipative values these days, despite the fact that only a few generations ago many of their religious leaders were violently opposed to such values. It seems reasonable to expect that a similar transition toward adoption of emancipative values will occur in Islamic countries during this century. It is difficult to predict exactly how this might happen, except that it is unlikely to be assisted by Western intervention. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What is missing from "Mind,Society and Behavior"?

Photo: Kim Yeul / EgyptThere is no prize for any reader who suggests that there is a “u” missing from “behavior”.

Mind, Society and Behavior is the title of World Development Report 2015, recently published by the World Bank. The title of the report is intended to capture
“the idea that paying attention to how humans think (the processes of mind) and how history and context shape thinking (the influence of society) can improve the design and implementation of development policies and interventions that target human choice and action (behaviour)".

The main point that the report seems to be making is that policy outcomes depend on psychological and social influences as well as economic incentives.

The report argues that it is important to take account of three different kinds of thinking:
  • Automatic thinking causes us to simplify problems and base decisions on associations that automatically come to mind. This means that policy outcomes can depend heavily on the framing of choices (the way information is provided) and default options.
  • Social thinking causes behaviour to be influenced by social preferences, networks, identities and norms. These influences can lead societies into self-reinforcing patterns of behaviour, which may be highly desirable (e.g. norms of loan repayment) or undesirable (e.g. a culture of corruption).
  • Thinking with mental models involves concepts, stories and views of how the world works which influence our understanding of what is possible, what is right and what governments should do. An example cited in the report is that people from disadvantaged groups can have mental models that cause them to under-estimate their own abilities.

The report draws upon a substantial amount of research which establishes the relevance of these different types of thinking to policy issues. I am probably more familiar than most readers would be with the underlying research in psychology, behavioural economic and institutional economics that is referred to in this report. However, it was interesting to see how the authors were able to draw on an impressive array of relevant research related to poverty, child development, household finance, productivity, health and climate change.

Anyone with an interest in economic development is likely to find the overview of the report interesting and easy to read. I read the whole report, but it took a long time because I kept finding more interesting things to do. The report seems to have been prepared by bureaucrats to be read by bureaucrats. As I was reading, I could not help thinking that while psychology and sociology do influence behaviour, we should not overlook the importance of pecuniary incentives. I find this kind of report easier to read when I am being paid.

I found the tone of the report to be slightly irritating, but I suppose it is difficult not to appear to have superior wisdom when discussing biases in decision-making of ordinary people. The tone in the rest of the report is balanced somewhat by a chapter which discusses the biases of development professionals in the World Bank. The chapter notes, among other things, that predictions by development professionals grossly understated the extent to which poor people in selected developing countries perceive themselves to be in control of their own lives and grossly overstated the extent to which these people perceive themselves to be helpless in dealing with life’s problems.

There is a major omission in this report, in my view. Any discussion of the influence of cognitive bias in decision-making on economic development should take into account the influence of bias in the mental models on economic development policies. There is no discussion of the deficiencies mental models that led to trade protectionism, widespread public ownership of business enterprises in many countries or the over-emphasis on the role of savings and capital investment in economic development. And there is no discussion of institutional arrangements for policy development that might help prevent biased views of how the economic growth process works from continuing to have a huge adverse impact on government policies in many parts of the world.

This report makes a useful contribution, but it could have been a lot better.