Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Does Economic Growth Meaningfully Improve Well-being? An Optimistic Re-Analysis of Easterlin’s Research

Does Economic Growth Meaningfully Improve Well-being? An Optimistic Re-Analysis of Easterlin’s Research: Founders Pledge. Vadim Albinsky. Effective Altruism Forum, Sep 2022.


Understanding the relationship between wellbeing and economic growth is a topic that is of key importance to Effective Altruism (e.g. see Hillebrandt and Hallstead, Clare and Goth). In particular, a key disagreement regards the Easterlin Paradox; the finding that happiness[1] varies with income across countries and between individuals, but does not seem to vary significantly with a country’s income as it changes over time. Michael Plant recently wrote an excellent post summarizing this research. He ends up mostly agreeing with Richard Easterlin’s latest paper arguing that the Easterlin Paradox still holds; suggesting that we should look to approaches other than economic growth to boost happiness. I agree with Michael Plant that life satisfaction is a valid and reliable measure, that it should be a key goal of policy and philanthropy, and that boosting income does not increase it as much as we might naively expect. In fact, we at Founders Pledge highly value and regularly use Michael Plant’s and Happier Lives Institute’s (HLI) research; and we believe income is only a small part of what interventions should aim at. However, my interpretation of the practical implications of Easterlin’s research differ from Easterlin’s in three ways which I argue in this post:

-  Easterlin finds small coefficients in his preferred regressions of changes in countries’ happiness on changes in GDP. He concludes that these coefficients have low “economic significance” and that increasing economic growth is not a good way to make people happier. However, even if we take these coefficients at face value, they still represent a very meaningful increase in wellbeing within the effective altruism framework, consistent with the impacts of unconditional cash transfers on individuals. The benefits become very large when aggregated across all the people in a country for many years.

-  We also have reason to doubt Easterlin’s results, in that they are highly sensitive to small changes in methodology. We perform two variations on his regression that fully accept his methodology of only including “full cycle” countries, but update it slightly, reversing the result. If we replicate his results counting one more country as a “transition” economy, the Easterlin paradox largely disappears. If we repeat his analysis with new data from 2020 instead of 2019, the paradox also seems to largely disappear.

-  It may be difficult to find things we can influence whose change over time will have a higher correlation to a country’s change in happiness than changes in GDP. Even if we accept that boosting GDP does not meaningfully increase happiness, other potential means of boosting national happiness may increase it even less. If we rerun Easterlin’s analysis using three interventions Easterlin and Plant suggest (health, pollution, and a comprehensive welfare state), their implied impacts on national happiness are much smaller than the impacts for GDP or negative. However, I have low confidence in this conclusion, and think it is a very valuable project to identify the interventions that are most likely to have an impact on happiness.


3. The happiness impact of alternative interventions is smaller than the impact of GDP.

Easterlin concludes his latest paper by suggesting that even though he does not believe that GDP growth has a meaningful impact on happiness, that there are a number of better interventions. Michael Plant adds some suggestions to the list in his post, coming up with a set of potential interventions that includes:

“...job security, a comprehensive welfare state, getting citizens to be healthy, and encouraging long-term relationships…[taking] mental health and palliative care more seriously…improved air quality, reduced noise, more green and blue space (blue spaces being water), and getting people to commute smaller distances (Diener et al. 2019). Social interactions could be enhanced via urban design, reducing corruption, increasing transparency, supporting healthy family relationships, and maybe even things like progressive taxation.”

All of these sound like promising ideas, and are a good research agenda for future investigation. However, it may be difficult to find one of these measures that has a higher impact on country-level happiness than GDP using Easterlin’s methodology. To perform an exploratory analysis, I start with Easterlin’s data from his “best possible life” regression (taking his relatively low estimated impacts at face value as I do in section 1.) I then choose three interventions from Michael Plant’s list that seem to have a fair amount of annual data available on health, pollution and a comprehensive welfare state.[7] I replace annual GDP growth in Easterlin’s regression with annual growth on these three metrics, and perform a separate analysis for each one.[8] Each regression looks at annualized changes in a country’s Cantril ladders scores versus annualized changes in the specified metric for the past 12-14 years. The health regression estimates how much a decrease in the number of years people in a country lose to ill health corresponds to increases in happiness. This regression produces coefficients that are either an order of magnitude smaller than the GDP regression, or negative, depending on whether we exclude countries that have less than 12 years of data. In both cases the r-squared of the regression is essentially 0.. There does not appear to be a way to interpret these results to suggest that changes in health have a higher impact on national happiness than changes in GDP. The pollution regression repeats the methodology for health, but looks at only the changes in the years of life lost to pollution. This analysis actually shows negative results of a magnitude similar to the positive results of the GDP regression. This would imply that increases in pollution are actually associated with countries getting happier. For example, the Republic of Congo and Benin both had large annual increases in happiness despite increasing levels of pollution.[9] The comprehensive welfare state regression examines the impact of changes in a score of whether a country has an adequate safety net. This analysis also shows negative results, however there are very few countries and years for which this data is available and the data appears to be of low quality, suggesting that we should not read too much into this result. In all three of these analyses we do not find any evidence consistent with any of these metrics having a higher impact on national happiness than changes in GDP.

I do not have a high level of confidence in these initial results. There are likely better sources of data, and better methodologies to employ. However, I do think they suggest that it may be difficult to find any interventions of their kind which will imply a larger impact on happiness than GDP using Easterlin’s methodology.

Normies do not experience "duping delight," the triumph of successful lying, but individuals with dark personality traits seem to enjoy it

In Search of Duping Delight. Christopher A. Gunderson et al. Affective Science (2022) 3:519–527. July 19 2022.

Abstract: Deception has long been assumed to conjure diverse affective experiences (Trovillo, 1938). Liars, more than truth-tellers, are theorized to feel guilt, fear, and nervousness (e.g., Ekman, 1985; Zuckerman et al., 1981). Additionally, deception has been proposed to elicit positive affect. Ekman (1985) broadly defined duping delight as any positive affective experience that occurs in anticipation of, during, or following a lie. Empirical evidence for this definition of duping delight has primarily come from studies of affective cues during deceptive acts. For example, in a study of emotional, high-stakes lies in which people pleaded for help to find a person they had recently murdered, smiles were described by ten Brinke and Porter (2012) as a sign of duping delight. However, research suggests that smiles may occur for multiple reasons (e.g., to signal affiliation or dominance; Martin et al., 2017). Given the difficulty in inferring affective states from facial expressions (Barrett et al., 2019), a more direct approach would ask liars and truth-tellers to report on their affect.

In the two studies, we sought experimental evidence that successful deception would result in duping delight. Across both studies, receiving affirming feedback about one’s believability increased positive affect. Believability feedback, however, did not interact with veracity to predict positive affect: Successful (vs. unsuccessful) liars did not report greater positive affect. However, we did find that liars who reported moderate and high (but not low) Machiavellianism and narcissism reported more positive affect after receiving affirming feedback, suggesting that personality variables may be an important predictor of who experiences duping delight. Although these findings suggest that duping delight may be a less common response to successful deception than previously theorized, it should be noted that Ekman and Frank (1993) proposed additional conditions for producing duping delight that were not part of our paradigm. While our paradigm involved a lie that caused no harm to others (Ruedy et al., 2013), the present study lacked an audience to witness the lie and a “victim” who has a reputation of being hard to trick (Ekman & Frank, 1993). That said, we did directly test one potential moderator of the experience of duping delight in Study 2, specifically whether the lie was goal conducive. We attempted to manipulate goal congruence by including an incentive condition, which provided a tangible reward for successful lying (or truth-telling). However, we found no effect of incentive. Although these findings may suggest that our incentive was not large enough to impact affective experiences, these results are consistent with previous research on conceptually similar cheating behavior: positive affect is elicited whether cheating is self-selected or sanctioned by experimental manipulation and was unrelated to the size of financial incentive gained by cheating (Ruedy et al., 2013). Alternatively, it is possible that duping delight is only experienced by a subset of the population. For example, individuals with high levels of “dark” personality traits have been observed to lie more and report duping delight as a motivator for their deception (Jonason et al., 2014; Spidel et al., 2011). Indeed, duping delight might serve as positive reinforcement for these individuals, resulting in their prolific use of deception. The results in Study 2 indicate that Machiavellianism and narcissism moderated the effect of positive affect after receiving believable (vs. not believable) feedback after lying. This is consistent with previous work suggesting that “dark” personality traits are positively associated with lying and unethical behavior across various situations (Azizli et al., 2016; Baughman et al., 2014; Elaad et al., 2020) and positive attitudes about deceptive communication (Oliveira & Levine, 2008). Future research should continue to explore the effects of personality and situational variables (e.g., Markowitz & Levine, 2021) with consideration for a typology of lies (Cantarero et al., 2018) that may elicit different affective experiences while lying. To date, much of the research on duping delight in the deception literature has been focused on how this affective experience might give rise to behavioral cues to deception (e.g., Ekman, 1985; ten Brinke & Porter, 2012). The current research advances theorizing about duping delight by testing some of the proposed moderators of this experience and considering how this affective experience may reinforce and exacerbate the use of deception in social life. Additional research on duping delight will allow for a richer understanding of how and why people choose to lie, and whether this affective experience acts as an affective “reward” that affects deception frequency over time.

The association between "cheaper" non-marital sex partners and marriage rates is temporary: recent sex partners predict lower odds of marriage, but not lifetime non-marital sex partners; it is not "the" reason for declining marriage rates

Does a longer sexual resume affect marriage rates? Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Samuel L. Perry. Social Science Research, October 11 2022, 102800.

Abstract: Sociologists have proposed numerous theories for declining marriage rates in the United States, often highlighting demographic, economic, and cultural factors. One controversial theory contends that having multiple non-marital sex partners reduces traditional incentives for men to get married and simultaneously undermines their prospects in the marriage market. For women, multiple partners purportedly reduces their desirability as spouses by evoking a gendered double-standard about promiscuity. Though previous studies have shown that having multiple premarital sex partners is negatively associated with marital quality and stability, to date no research has examined whether having multiple non-marital sex partners affects marriage rates. Data from four waves of the National Survey of Family Growth reveal that American women who report more sex partners are less likely to get married by the time of the survey (though so too were virgins). Yet this finding is potentially misleading given the retrospective and cross-sectional nature of the data. Seventeen waves of prospective data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth's 1997 mixed-gender cohort that extend through 2015 show the association between non-marital sex partners and marriage rates is temporary: recent sex partners predict lower odds of marriage, but not lifetime non-marital sex partners. Seemingly unrelated bivariate probit models suggest the short-term association likely reflects a causal effect. Our findings ultimately cast doubt on recent scholarship that has implicated the ready availability of casual sex in the retreat from marriage. Rather, the effect of multiple sex partners on marriage rates is “seasonal” for most Americans.


As more Americans choose to delay marriage or forego it altogether (Bloome and Ang, 2020), sociologists have offered a number of explanations. These have included the falling economic prospects of men and the stronger economic prospects of women, which weakened the latter's incentives; rising expectations of consumption for the middle class; the growing cultural value of achieving economic stability before marriage; and creeping disenchantment with the idea of life-long commitment (Carr and Utz, 2020; Cherlin, 2020; Edin and Kefalas, 2011; England, 2018; Kuperberg, 2019; Schneider et al., 2018; Smock et al., 2005). A more controversial theory for declining marriage rates is the idea that the broad acceptance and availability of non-marital sexual activity (and, to a lesser extent, masturbatory pornography use) has made marriage less necessary or even desirable (Caldwell, 2020; Regnerus, 2017; Regnerus and Uecker, 2011; for critiques, see Bridges et al., 2018; Perry, 2020; Risman, 2019).1

To be sure, scholars who support the latter theory acknowledge that the vast majority of people who marry do so for non-sexual reasons, since most couples have sex before marriage. Nonetheless, in a world where one can have casual sex with little to no commitment, the argument goes that some men and women will simply have one less traditional incentive to get married, as well as less incentive to become the kind of person who is “marriage material” (as evidenced either by superior economic prospects or chaste reputation) (Baumeister and Vohs, 2012; Buss and Schmitt, 2011; Caldwell, 2020; Huang et al., 2011; Malcolm and Naufal, 2016; Regnerus, 2017, 2019; Regnerus and Uecker, 2011).

Though this theory rests upon debatable premises (e.g., gendered assumptions about desire for sexual activity, the extent to which people exchange long-term commitments for sexual activity or vice versa, the consistent coupling of sex and marriage), the broad empirical claim itself has yet to be definitively examined. Specifically, is there evidence that never-married persons with multiple sex partners (indicating they not only can, but do more readily access sexual activity with less long-term commitment) are less likely to get married? Despite decades of references to this idea, no study has tried to test it using representative data. This neglect is especially curious given that the theory is consistent with pervasive cultural tropes arguing why young women in particular need to withhold sex: frequent sex partners purportedly render women less desirable, and, if men could get sex without commitment, they might be less motivated to marry and less motivated to develop their prospects to establish their eligibility for marriage—in other words, the “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” theory (Baumeister and Vohs, 2012; Huang et al., 2011; Regnerus, 2017; Regnerus and Uecker, 2011).

Addressing this gap in the literature, we draw on data from both the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) to assess how the number of Americans’ non-marital sex partners predicts their likelihood of marrying. Using cross-sectional data from the NSFG, our preliminary findings suggest that never-married women who recount more sex partners (as well as those with no sex partners) are less likely to get married by the time of the survey. The NSFG is limited in several ways—repeated cross-sectional data, sexual history only available for women, retrospective measure of the number of sex partners—so we turn to the NLSY97 and its 17 waves of prospective data extending from 1997 to 2015. We find that the recent number of sex partners is associated with a reduction in the odds of marriage, but lifetime sex partners is not, indicating the link between more sex partners and likelihood of marriage is temporary. Seeking to disentangle self-selection versus “treatment” effects, seemingly unrelated bivariate probit models suggest that the short-term effect is likely causal. We propose that the effect of multiple sex partners on the likelihood of marriage is seasonal, reflecting a period where the persons are enjoying sexual activity with less commitment. Yet having multiple sex partners does not seem to discernibly influence their odds of marriage in the long run.

Our findings extend sociologists' understanding of the link between non-marital sexual activity and marriage in several ways. First and foremost, our findings cast doubt on the controversial notion that more readily available sexual activity with numerous partners will reduce men's and women's desire or desirability, and ultimately, likelihood of marrying. Though the “seasonal” effect of having multiple sex partners may contribute to delayed marriage, declining rates of marriage cannot be broadly explained by access to “cheap sex,” especially in light of the fact that sex frequency and the number of sex partners is declining among young people (Lei and South, 2021; Twenge et al., 2017). Our study also shows that the sexual activity of single women does not appear to make them “undesirable” as marriage partners. Although heterosexual women have historically been stigmatized for having casual sex (Allison and Risman, 2014; Armstrong et al., 2012; England and Bearak, 2014), our analyses suggest that this does not manifest itself in long-term singleness. Women with multiple sex partners are just as likely to get married as are virgins, if somewhat later. Our findings ultimately underscore the continued decoupling of sexual history from marriage rates per se (D'Emilio and Freedman, 2012), instead highlighting how seasons of sexual exploration with different partners may simply contribute to postponing a relationship most Americans still anticipate and, ultimately, form (Newport and Wilke 2013; Parker and Stepler, 2017).