unhappy academics and the “focus effect”


In a couple of recent papers in Science, Daniel Kahneman and collaborators (2004, 2006) have used what they refer to as “Day Reconstruction” methodology to recover people’s affective experience while engaged in various day to day activities. They come up with various cool findings (such as the discovery that negative affect is rather rare in people’s daily life) but the really cool thing that they are able to do is to compare the effect of “objective” indicators of social position (income, education, etc.) on overall assessments of well being (happiness) and actually recalled positive affect during the day. What they find is that while objective indicators correlate fairly well with global assessments of well being (How happy are you?) they have a correlation of nearly zero with actual day to day positive affect and reports of enjoyment. They call this the “focus effect” and propose it as an explanation of why happiness does not increase monotonically with resources, and why global assessments of well being do not increase over time as rich countries get richer.

Basically, the focus effect is a cognitive bias that creates an artificial correlation between global assesments of well being and objective status. When people are asked: “How happy are you?” they think back and reflect on their social position, and if they are comparatively well-off, they say: “well, pretty happy!” However, this may have little correlation with the actual day to day activities that got them the nice bank account, income, and house (commuting, dealing with clients, etc.) from which they may derive little or no enjoyment. In a similar way, “relatively deprived” people report that they are unhappy when comparing themselves to the Joneses, but overall, spend most of the day in a pretty good mood. A example of the focus effect comes from a study in which undergrads where asked how happy they were and then were asked how many dates they had in the past month; the correlation between number of dates and happiness was nearly zero. However, when students in another group were asked how many dates they had in the past month and then they were asked how happy they were, the correlation was 0.66.

I think something like the focus effect explains why academics are in general somewhat crabby, complainy and irritable (when forced to think about academia). Most sociology of science studies, show for instance that both subjective (prestige and reputation) and objective (Nobel prizes, endowed chairs) rewards are highly unequally distributed in academia; with the distribution being much more unequal (usually following some sort of exponential form) than things like income, education or vacation days are in the real world, due to cumulative advantage mechanisms such as Merton’s “Matthew Effect.”

The focus effect thus predicts that academics will in general (when thinking of their position in the academic field) report overall negative assessments of satisfaction and well being vis a vis academia, even though, they will overall find their day to day academia-related activities fairly enjoyable. Thus, when addressing highly abstract topics (such as the state of the field, or the state of their careers) academics will be invariably negative, full of complaints, pessimistic, and liable to tell “sky is falling” stories (this explains for instance the recurring navel gazing and “where are we going” discussions common to all fields from economics, political science and sociology to Literature). This is because when academic matters are salient, academics will tend to think of their relative position in the field, and probabilistically this will be a rather disadvantageous one (due to the highly skewed distribution of rewards referred to above), which will elicit a negative assessment of global (academic) well-being. However, if academics were to fill one of Kahneman’s “day reconstruction” questionnaires, we would find that academics spend most of their day doing things that they enjoy, thus, their relative reputational position in the field would have zero correlation with their day to day reports of positive affect when engaging in academic activities.

There is another empirical implication: fields with more scarcely distributed but highly public reputational symbols (such as Nobel prizes or field medals) and in which there is relatively more consensus regarding the reputational hierarchy and the distribution of rewards, will be composed of crabbier academics; thus economists will in general tend to be crabbier and full of complaints than sociologists about highly abstract matters, even though there would be no differences across fields in the actual enjoyment that economists get out of their intellectual labor.

Written by Omar

September 13, 2006 at 5:33 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Nice post, Omar! Concerning your last comment about fields with reputational symbols (like economics), does that mean we should collectively act to prevent sociology from establishing a Nobel prize just so we can get along?


    Fabio Rojas

    September 13, 2006 at 5:52 pm

  2. Of course, self-selection provides an observationally equivalent explanation. It may be that naturally crabby people tend to specialize in economics. (Not that I would know.)


    Peter Klein

    September 13, 2006 at 7:57 pm

  3. It could be though that sociologists are even crabbier because they are constantly comparing themselves to economists who have higher inter-disciplinary prestige (and as a result get cited more in newspapers and have higher salaries). The most unhappy sociologists would be those who share the same building with economists.



    September 13, 2006 at 9:03 pm

  4. Fabio, I don’t think that ASA headquarters is going to be getting any calls from the Nobel Committee any time soon, but yes an argument can be made that a proliferation of visible reputational symbols in a discipline can be damaging. If we think of reputational symbols as “positional goods” in Robert Frank’s sense, then it is possible that a discipline in which there is high inequality in reputational standing (as is the norm in all scientific fields) and in which those standings are highly visible and consensual will not only produce widespread discontent, but also result in an irrational investment of time among members of the discipline in pursuits that are thought to result in rapid increases in reputational standing (such as a large number of quick publications) to the detriment of other aspects of academic activity (advising, teaching, reading books beyond your area of specialization, etc.), in the end resulting in the “publication crazed drones” that journal editors and reviewers usually complain about (notice that this has nothing to do with an academic’s “livelihood” in a material sense; associate and full professors are predicted to be as likely to be affected by these reputational concerns, as recent events at a University of Chicago’s parking lot attest to).



    September 13, 2006 at 11:41 pm

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