From the perfect life we don’t have to the good life we could: Paul Dolan

Podcast May 3rd, 2021

“There are two things that people care about fundamentally in their lives. That is how well they live and for how long. And we’ve had a pretty good sense of how long by measuring life expectancy, looking at mortality risks. The interesting question here is how you capture the ‘how well’ bit.”

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Intro

In this episode of the Decision Corner, Brooke speaks with Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. Paul is globally recognised for his work on the measurement of happiness, its causes and consequences, and its implications for public policy. His experience includes working with the British Office for National Statistics and the government’s Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the ‘nudge’ unit. He is the author of two bestselling books, and has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles. In his conversation with Brooke, Paul discusses some of his most influential work on the topic of well-being and public policy. He gives his view on what’s needed to address some of the burning policy issues facing governments all around the world today.

Some of the topics discussed include:

  • Measuring well-being through a WELLBY – what it is, and how it can be used to help craft good policy.
  • Why the idea of a universal ‘perfect life’ is a myth, and how we need to find our individual balance of purpose and pleasure, based on our own experiences.
  • The difference between equity and equality. How inequality can be fair in some instances, but too much inequality is unjust, and the need for a general consensus around that point.
  • An appeal for diversity in policymaking – how policy makers are generally from a specific age group or demographic, and why having a broader range of input into policies and decisions could help inspire greater public confidence.
  • The different lenses through which people of different cultures and demographics see the world, and the need to accept and include diverse perspectives.
  • The impossibility of certainty when it comes to policy making, taking the pandemic response as a real-time example. Why we should be wary of individuals who display blind certainty, and fail to accept uncertainty in decision-making.

Sneak Peek

Discarding Dangerous Narratives of a ‘Perfect Life’

“I’m suggesting that it’s for each of us to work out what the good and bad stories are, and not to be unduly influenced by what society might want for us, what our parents might expect, what our friends,  what even our idealized selves might think we should do.”

Balancing Pleasure and Purpose

“I contend that happy lives are ones that find the right balance between pleasure and purpose. But that’s for you to work out. You could be a pleasure machine. I could be a purpose engine. That’s fine. But each of us is going to be happy when we find the right combination of pleasure and purpose. So, people are happier when they find the right balance. That’s a universal truth, but what the balance is, is not universal, and neither is what activities we find purposeful.”

Why We Prefer the Company of People ‘Just Like Us’

“There’s a comfort in being around people that are like you, and having similar beliefs and values is another similarity that I mentioned, as well as other attributes and characteristics. It reduces transaction costs. If you and I know we agree on things, we haven’t got to go through all this effort to understand what the other one might think. So it creates a lot of bonding social capital. The problem is, it undermines bridging social capital between different groups.”

Seeing the Duck or the Rabbit

“We need to distinguish between feeling strongly about something and feeling strongly about the ability for people to disagree with you. Sometimes if we feel strongly about something, we think that if we allow for disagreement and dissent, it undermines the value of our beliefs. So it makes us a bit more uncertain about whether we believe what we think to be true. And we find that discomforting.”

Why Policy Making Needs Diversity

“Now, it’s not in itself to say that the policy responses have been disproportionate or wrong. But if there had been a wider range of perspectives, even across age, with younger and older people involved in the decision-making process, or across different disciplines, across different perspectives and experiences, we would have more confidence in those decisions being the right ones, because it properly accounted for a broader range of perspectives and experience.”

The Interdependence of Human Utility

“You have an individual utility function, and I do too, but they’re interdependent. My welfare is affected by yours. Sometimes, I’m envious of you, other times, I feel empathy and compassion. Sometimes I’m glad that I’m doing better than you, other times, I feel sorry for you that you’re doing less well. And so, there’s huge interdependence.”

The Unrealistic Expectation of Certainty

“Given that we’ve got all these welfare concerns, how we weigh them and trade them off against one another, and what the counterfactuals would look like, are just impossible for us to know. So I am very, very uncomfortable with people who know for sure what the right approach should be.”

Transcript

Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially-conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Paul Dolan, professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, and author of ‘Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life’. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about pleasure, purpose, and the good life, and how to promote good lives throughout society. Paul, thanks for joining us today.

Paul: Thank you for having me.

Measuring Wellbeing

Brooke: Along with some LSE colleagues, you recently published a call for the U.K. government to create a wellbeing impacts agency. Now in that call, you propose collecting a new type of data, which you call ‘WELLBYs’, to orient policy decisions towards the wellbeing of citizens, beyond just longevity and GDP. What are WELLBYs, and how do you propose that we calculate them?

Paul:  There are two things that people care about fundamentally in their lives. That is how well they live, and for how long. We’ve had a pretty good sense of how long by measuring life expectancy, looking at mortality risks. The interesting question here is how you capture the ‘how well’ bit. And there are various ways in which that’s done across policies. In healthcare, for example, we have what’s called quality-adjusted life years, where the life years (the how long bit), is adjusted for quality, based on dimensions of health that people care about; pain, anxiety, depression, usual activities, and physical functioning. And all of these effects on ‘how well’ are captured in a single number that multiplies the duration of a health state by its severity, so you get a better life when you live longer and better.

It’s really analogous. WELLBYs, or wellbeing-adjusted life years, are really just another extension of QALYs. I did a lot of work on QALYs in my early life as a health economist. It is in many ways, an actual extension of that. To have a measure of quality of life that captures the richness of our experiences beyond just health effects. It would account for the mental health effects, it would account for all the things that matter to us. The quality and nature of our relationships, all expressed in a single measure of happiness or wellbeing. We can use various terms but it’s essentially a broader definition of wellbeing and quality of life that would then be multiplied by the duration to express it in a unit that could be applied to policy making.

Brooke: In your latest book, you put a lot of attention on escaping these myths of the perfect life, and you used data, I think quite similar to the WELLBYs that you’re discussing, to show how some of those myths get put ahead of what it is that we actually care about in life, and that we’re not always well-served by these myths or these narratives. But you talk about both pleasure and purpose. And it seems like purpose has stories or narratives, ‘life arcs’, built into them. So how do we not only tear down these myths of a perfect life, but also build up a variety of narratives in which people can discover themselves and have purpose?

The False Narrative of ‘The Perfect Life’

Paul: It’s a really good question. I like the way that you’ve managed to draw attention to both books, so we should promote both of those, ‘Happiness by Design’ and ‘Happy Ever After’. You’ve done a brilliant job for me (laughter). It’s a good question to think about how I would relate what I talk about in Happiness by Design, which you’re right, it’s about pleasure and purpose, within the stories that I discuss. I think it’s why I went to great lengths, although I wasn’t really obviously aware of what I was going to do next when I wrote Happiness by Design, but I went to great lengths to insist that pleasure and purpose are both located in experiences, that they’re not stories and evaluations.

Of course, stories and evaluations are important, and we can come on to talk about those in a second. But fundamentally, happiness is located in our experiences of feeling pleasure and feeling purpose. I can of course reflect on this conversation afterwards, and I might think it’s an amazingly purposeful experience, and I might draw it down into future stories that I might tell. But in the moment, we’re having a conversation that is actually quite enjoyable and also feels quite purposeful. And it’s in that experience that it matters and it shows up. That’s what I try to do in Happiness by Design, make a case for purposes in experience, and that’s not been thought about in that way before. It has been thought about in these narratives and stories.

When I talk about narratives and stories, I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not suggesting that nobody ever has a story about anything. Of course, that would be absurd. In fact, that’s its own story, right? If you’re going to be anti-narrative, and say that narratives shouldn’t count, then you’ve just created a narrative in its place. I’m suggesting that it’s for each of us to work out what the good and bad stories are, and not to be unduly influenced by what society might want for us, what our parents might expect, what our friends, what even our idealized selves might think we should do. What drew me to doing this research and writing the second book was just how much it appeared that people do live in these narratives about their ‘ought to’ ideal selves.

It struck me as really interesting because I’ve never been aware of doing too much of that myself. I’ve just got on with stuff that I find interesting, and don’t do stuff I don’t find interesting. I’ve been incredibly privileged to be able to work as an academic, where I can make that choice and not have any sense that I’ve ever been thinking about what’s coming next, like “What’s the story that sits behind why I’m doing this?”.  It’s just driven by pleasure and purpose. And so, I think I’ve been quite lucky in that regard. It’s interesting to me that so many people do seem to carry around these kinds of narratives. And as I say, some of those narratives exist for some of the people, some of the time. But not all of the people, all of the time.

Brooke: Right. Let’s dig into the narrative just a little bit more here. What’s the relationship between purpose and narrative? I gather we definitely don’t want any kind of universalizing narrative, like “We all should be the same way, we all should tell the same kinds of stories and strive for the same kinds of things.” But shouldn’t we all find ourselves somewhere, in some story?

Paul: Let’s talk about purpose. I contend that happy lives are ones that find the right balance between pleasure and purpose. But that’s for you to work out. You could be a pleasure machine. I could be a purpose engine. That’s fine. But each of us is going to be happy when we find the right combination of pleasure and purpose. So, people are happier when they find the right balance. That’s a universal truth, but what the balance is, is not universal, and neither is what activities we find purposeful. You might like gardening, I might f*cking hate it. I mean, that’s fine (laughter). We can get along. It’s this prescription that not only should people find purpose, but they should find purpose in the things that I find purposeful. That’s another level, and parents often do that with their kids, right? As they sort of say, they want their kids to be happy. They should really finish that sentence with, “doing the things that I think they should to make them happy,” right?

It’s for each of us to work out what brings us purpose, but to do that in a way that is related to the experiences that we get, the feedback that we get from what we do. If you do the gardening, and you like gardening, that’s great. But it’s not great to tell yourself the story that you ought to be the kind of person that enjoys gardening, or to do gardening because your dad’s a gardener, or to do gardening because you want to show off the flowers that you make at the end of it to all your friends. I mean, there would be reasons to do gardening, and they’re actually very legitimate reasons for people to behave in the ways they do, but they’re not ways that are necessarily conducive to them being happier.

Equitable Distribution of Wellbeing

Brooke: Sticking with this theme of differences among people and their stories and their narratives, in this recent call that you made for establishing a U.K. wellbeing impact agency, you note that we should be focusing not just on maximizing the total volume of wellbeing that is created, but also in focusing on equitable distribution of wellbeing. What do you think we need to drive really full-blooded debates around distributions of wellbeing? We don’t seem to be getting those kinds of distribution discussions off the ground all that well around other ‘goods’ let’s say in scare quotes, that we care about. How are we going to get that discussion on track around wellbeing?

Paul: Interesting. What other distributional domains are you thinking of?

Brooke: I’m thinking about, for instance, income and wealth. There’s a lot of debate about how they should be more equitably and fairly distributed within society, but are we really making that much progress towards changing the distribution? It remains to be seen.

Paul: Sticking with income for a second, there are boundaries of fairness, right? Most people would consider it to be entirely fair and legitimate that some people have more money than others. So equity is not equality. I know you know this, but I’m just making the point that we might expect the CEO of a company to earn 20 times more than the average wage of the workers. By and large, that broadly was what the salary differences were for a long period of time, roughly speaking. We might think it unfair that it’s 200 times, and that’s where we’ve got to in some of the ratios that we’re observing in some of the markets now.

Some inequality is fair, too much inequality is unjust. And the problem is, of course, agreeing on whether it’s 20 or 200. And I think that’s part of the problem, is that we don’t have a consensus about what to reward people who maybe have more talent and worked harder, whilst at the same time, showing regard for people who have less talent or basically have largely been unfortunate. I mean, that’s mostly what drives how we end up in life, is luck. We don’t like to have that as a narrative, by the way. That’s an awful story. We love agency. People will say things like, “I make my own luck.” Well, you can put yourself in the place of opportunity. You can’t make randomness. I mean, that’s entirely impossible. Yet people will try to claim ownership of it.

The problem is that we don’t have a broad consensus on what level of inequality is fair. But I think that we do have a consensus that we, as a society and in public policy, ought to be showing more regard for the worse off. I mean, there are statements about how you judge a society by how well it treats its worse off. We often look for polarized differences between left and right; Republicans, Democrats, whatever. And actually, there’s a lot of similarities, as well. They’re not as exciting to discuss in the press and elsewhere. I mean, broadly, everybody agrees that society should be looking after the ‘worse off’ more. The question is, who’s the worse off and by how much? But that ethical principle is universally shared.

Paying attention to the wellbeing of those that suffer the most. This is not necessarily, although there may be a high correlation between these things, in the conditions and circumstances of their lives, but actually in their experiences, in their mental health and in their anxiety and the depression and the mental health problems that people experience. That’s real suffering in real people. We should hopefully be able to move towards where we can coalesce around a consensus that people who suffer are the ones that we should be giving greater priority to. And I think that that’s where we hopefully will get to in the distribution of wellbeing.

One final thing, though, about the timeframe over which those assessments are made. I make a case in our report for wellbeing over the lifetime. And I think it’s important that I draw attention to that because when we look at inequality of income, or wealth is actually a much better measure, we often just take a snapshot, right? What’s the distribution of income now, of wealth now, across society? Well, of course, younger people would expect to be less wealthy than older people. By and large, generally that’s what you see, an accumulation of assets through the life course. Not for everybody, of course.

What you want to do is, you would ideally take a lifetime perspective. It really matters to me to know whether you’re on a trajectory that’s up or down, right? It  really matters to me how I would judge inequality in any one moment, about whether your income or wealth is good or bad compared to other people, in the knowledge of where you’ve come from and where you’re going. And similarly with wellbeing, I’m very passionately in favor of reducing inequalities over the lifetime, not necessarily any one moment in time. I find that everyone is egalitarian,  is, of what? For me, I’ve held a long commitment to reducing unfair inequalities. Because some of these inequalities will be fair, as we talked about with effort and talent, but reducing unfair inequalities over the lifetime. I think the wellbeing lens enables us to do that.

Interlude

Hi there, and welcome back to the Decision Corner, the podcast of the Decision Lab. I’ve been chatting with Paul Dolan about measuring wellbeing, and the need to balance pleasure with purpose. So far, we’ve discussed WELLBY’s, which we can use to measure wellbeing. We’ve also discussed challenges around the attempt to define a ‘perfect life’, heavy on the air quotes there. In the second half of the episode, we’ll discuss the equity of wellbeing and the polarizing debates that surround it, and how we can find common ground in these debates. Stay with us.

The Polarized Debate around Inequality

Brooke: You mentioned discussions about supporting the worse off, and the difficulty in reaching consensus about where a just level of inequality is. My sense, just taking the pulse of public discourse around us, is that there seems to be a lot of polarization, or maybe that’s just the way that it’s portrayed. That there’s a group of people who are saying, “Well, the current distribution is unfair,” and then the response is to say, “Well, we’re not going to go to a situation where everybody gets exactly the same thing. We’re not all going to become communists.” And I use that only slightly facetiously, because some people actually do say that. But what we’re missing is that middle ground of, “Okay, well, if we agree that all the way at this end is not good and all the way at the other end isn’t good either, how are we going to get a little bit of progress towards finding somewhere in the middle that we’re a little bit more happy with?” We don’t seem to get past these facile starting gates.

Paul: No, we don’t. I’m going to be hosting my own podcast soon called the Duck-Rabbit Podcast, which is exactly about polarized debates. You know the ‘duck-rabbit’? Have you seen the image where you can look at it and it’s obviously both animals in the image, but it’s very hard, once you see one, to see the other anymore? It’s a nice metaphor for how we’ve become polarized, because you’ll see one image, and then find it increasingly difficult to see the other. You’ll surround yourself with people who see that it’s a duck. So in the end, how could anybody possibly see it as a rabbit? In fact, people who see it as a rabbit are clearly mad, and we’re all right to continue on believing it’s a duck, affirmed in the belief that we’re right about things. That is what happens and I think there’s a comfort in that. 

There’s a comfort in being around people that are like you, and having similar beliefs and values is another similarity that I mentioned, as well as other attributes and characteristics. It reduces transaction costs, right? If you and I know we agree on things, we haven’t got to go through all this effort to understand what the other one might think. It creates a lot of bonding social capital. The problem is, it undermines bridging social capital between different groups.

How do you go about creating more of that? Well, that’s why I drew attention earlier to paying attention to some of the similarities. Most people, irrespective of their political persuasion, have very similar concerns about their economic security, about the welfare of their family. This is part of the human condition. Republicans and Democrats are different, but they’re not that different. They’re both humans, with fundamentally very similar underlying concerns. If we can find places where there are these agreements, by and large, there would be a consensus, that it would be somewhere between 10 and 100, right? So when we see distributions of income that are outside of those boundaries, you’re going to take great swathes of the population with you by bringing it back within those boundaries.

The other thing to say is that we need to distinguish between feeling strongly about something, and feeling strongly about the ability for people to disagree with you. Sometimes if we feel strongly about something, we think that if we allow for disagreement and dissent,it undermines the value of our beliefs. It makes us a bit more uncertain about whether we believe what we think to be true and we find that discomforting.

I’m actively trying to encourage, in academia, for example, adversarial collaboration. The idea that you bring together people that you know explicitly disagree with one another, to work on the research project. And hopefully, that way, insofar as there is a truth out there, you get closer to finding it.

Diversity & Inclusivity in Decision-Making

Brooke: In terms of the decision-making process itself, we start to collect this information about distributions of wellbeing, and maybe we have some more mature conversations about where we think that the boundaries lie for what’s a fair distribution or an unfair distribution. In terms of the decision-making process itself, you propose that a more diverse group of stakeholders needs to be at that table. In brief, that means sharing power with a wider circle. And we’ve seen, time and time again, that calls for power to be shared more widely generally don’t get such a hot reception from the people who are holding power currently. So, how do we actually make a bit more traction on this front, of getting more people at the table in terms of having some decision-making around where those fair boundaries are, and also what to do about it?

Paul: You don’t ask easy questions (laughter). None of these questions can be answered straightforwardly. If I appear to be giving a straightforward answer, I’m not doing justice to the seriousness of the question. In response to the pandemic, I would say that 100% of all the advisors and the politicians involved in the decision-making, pretty much around the world – I mean, I’m sure it’s not true, entirely, in every country – but most are able to work from home on full salaries, and have good pensions. They are nearly all 50, plus or minus five years or whatever. I mean, of course, we had the U.S. president that was a bit older than that. But that is a very, very select group. Oh, by the way, they all, of course, work in the public sector. They’re naturally cautious and risk-averse. You have a sweet spot of decision-makers and advisors that have driven the policy responses. Now, it’s not in itself to say that the policy responses have been disproportionate or wrong. But if there had been a wider range of perspectives, even across age, with younger and older people involved in the decision-making process, or across different disciplines, across different perspectives and experiences, we would have more confidence in those decisions being the right ones, because it properly accounted for a broader range of perspectives and experience.

We all know that diversity of perspective leads to better decision-making. There’s been lots of evidence showing that across different sectors. It loomed large to me during the course of the pandemic, where there hasn’t even been, it seems to me, very much interest in finding out what different people might think about the policy measures. So for example, when we have essentially locked up old people in care homes for a year, not allowing them access to families, where for some of the patients with dementia, for example, their contact would come from seeing faces that they recognize. Not having that access for the last year has been disproportionate, in terms of its wellbeing consequences. But maybe inquiry into whether that was actually what those families would have wanted for themselves, or for their relatives, would have been a good start. And I appreciate that responses to a pandemic have to be made in an agile and very quick way, but feeling that those different voices are around the decision-making table would give me more confidence in the decisions. 

Let me just make this point a bit more clearly. We went into a national lockdown in the U.K. on the 23rd of March, 2020. Now, this is not in itself substantively to say anything about the rightness of that decision, but I woke up the morning after, thinking about the kids that were in the classrooms of my children, who are in lower secondary school, high school, as you would call it, who were going back into homes where they really shouldn’t be spending very much time at home, where school is the one place for care and attention and food. And thinking, “Who is reflecting their voices when the decisions to lock down were being made?” We might reach the same conclusions about shutting schools. But if there are people there that have those perspectives and experiences in mind, there might be more confidence in those measures. And I don’t think that there was anybody with a deep understanding of those vulnerable children around the table.

You talk about power sharing. You can get into Marxian arguments of power structures in our society. We could spend a very long time talking about the relative merits of Marx. There is a sense of which no answer is ever straightforward, and that most of the time, we can overestimate, we can overstate differences in conflict sometimes. We want to draw attention to polarization, for example. We talked about that before. I do think that, by and large, humanity is muddling through sharing in some kind of substantive sense, of course not withstanding the fact that there are huge power differences. And you’re absolutely right, that a lot of the time, those with it are not going to want to share it. Why would they? They’ve done very well out of the current existing arrangements.

So there will always be a case for, and always be a place for protests, and pushback, and civil rights movements, and organizations that push the boundaries of their legitimacy in order to take back some of that power, or share it around more widely. It’s a very complex question, but I’m just generally optimistic about progress. Stephen Pinker has made this point in a lot of his work; that we’re actually doing all right. We’re moving forward. And I understand all of the challenges and inequalities; of course there are. But I’m optimistic about our ability to progress things.

Looking At The World Through Different Lenses

Brooke: It’s a very nice note. Optimism is an important thing to conserve, right? If you give up the idea that you could make progress, then you certainly won’t. Optimism isn’t the guarantee, but at least you get to roll the dice. Thinking about what it is that our decision-makers and our decision-making apparatus serves to improve, this idea of the ‘public good’ comes up, and WELLBYs having some data that allows us to get some quantitative traction on the public good. Is the public good a real thing, or is the public good a story? Is the public good a narrative?

Paul: What is the public good in this? What do you mean by that, precisely?

Brooke: I have this vague sense that when we say, “The decisions are being made in the interest of the public good,” that it’s supposed to be some kind of hazy gesture towards the general well-being of the most people, which as you say, we’d be really in a better position to make those kinds of decisions if we had some good data on what the impacts of those decisions actually were. But I mean, a society as a whole is also something that has a narrative. Individuals have their own narratives in how they connect to their society, but the society as a whole tries to trace an arc for itself. Or do you not think that there are societal narratives in that way, or that they’re not helpful?

Paul: It’s interesting. One of the things that comes to mind in that question is cultural variation. Generally, Western liberal democracies are much more focused on individuals, whereas, of course, the Asian countries are much more inclined to locate themselves in their social context. 

If you asked me who I am, and because I’m from Britain I’d say that I’m Paul Dolan. I’d tell you about my job, and I’d tell you about my family and my kids. Whereas Asians will often answer that question with, “I am the father of”, and will far more often locate themselves in the context of their environment. And there’s been lots of research on that. Have you seen that research which shows where we (Westerners) would look in the fish tank and say, “There’s a big fish and there’s a small fish,” and that’s that status and everything else that comes from that. It’s very individual. Whereas in East Asian culture – and I’m doing a huge disservice to this research, trying to summarize it in 30 seconds –  people will look in the fish tank and locate the fish in the context of where they are in the tank. That’s literally looking at the world through a different lens, and there will be huge variations about how people do that within countries, as well as across cultures.

It’s really interesting. Tthis will manifest itself as our children get older, but now it appears as if, to use the very generalizable spectrum of left to right, our daughter is just naturally more right-wing than our son. Our son is looking much more at inequalities and social justice. They’re brought up in the same family by the same parents, but they just have very different lenses that they’re looking at the world through. And I think a proper appreciation of that difference, that we’re looking at the same image, but you’re seeing a duck and I’m seeing a rabbit, and we’re both convinced that that’s what the image is, is really important to understand.

That’s why I do think there is something that comes out of that, to speak now about the public good aspect or the collective, the fact that there is a social welfare, but it’s an aggregation of individual utilities, to use the language of economics. But we’re very interdependent. They are individual utilities: you have an individual utility function, and I do too, but they’re interdependent. My welfare is affected by yours. Sometimes, I’m envious of you, other times, I feel empathy and compassion. Sometimes, I’m glad that I’m doing better than you, other times, I feel sorry for you that you’re doing less well. And so, there’s huge interdependence. So there must be something that sits in the aggregation. There must be a role. There has to be a role. Of course, there’s a legitimate role for the government and the state. The question is, of course, the boundaries.

I suppose my own journey over this last year has been one of realization, of just how important liberty and freedoms are. I didn’t realize quite how much I valued those until they’re taken away, until there’s such incredible compliance with some of the restrictions that we would never have seen as acceptable before. I never worried before, actually, about the pandemic. Brits, we like to see our state as quite benevolent. We have quite a nice relationship with the state. We think, by and largely, “that’s good stuff.” But we all know that once powers are appropriated, they’re given back less. The income tax is the obvious classical example. That was a temporary tax that’s never gone away. I do have some concern, I think it’s a legitimate concern, that some of the state powers that have been appropriated over this last year, they’ll be a bit reluctant and less willing to give back.

Brooke: We’ll try to sew that up by coming back to this idea of the duck-rabbit, right? It’s interesting you mentioned over the last year, one of the things you’ve realized is that your personal liberties are something you value much more than you thought you did before.

Brooke: I would argue, probably not entirely dissimilar evidence, what’s really come to the fore for me is about social connections. It’s about other people. I’m really not all that worried about myself. I’m worried a lot about other people and about my connections to them. If you’re a liberty duck, I’m a society rabbit or something like that. And this maybe is something to think about in terms of the collection of wellbeing data as well, that what we’re looking for in bringing a diverse group of people and a diverse set of perspectives to the table is to make sure that even looking at the same data, we don’t immediately jump to this one conclusion, that it’s clearly a duck or clearly a rabbit. That there’s a bit of problematizing that goes on there, and we hedge our bets about whether in fact it’s a duck, or whether it’s in fact a rabbit. And those things are stories, right? So the individual data points are what they are, but how we put them together, that’s a narrative or a story.

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Paul: I completely agree. Whatever you pay attention to becomes important, because you’re paying attention to it. I agree that there’s been lots of manifestations of solidarity and ‘in-it-togetherness’ that have come about in this last year. My concern has been that there has been a fear management issue that I’ve been troubled by. I completely am in favor of encouraging behavioral responses that take regard for other people and draw attention to the consequences of my actions for other people. But when we’ve, as well as that, or actually arguably more than that, stoked up individuals’ own perceived risks of their own threat that they face, that feels very unethical to me. In the kind of behavioral science that I’ve applied, I think we want to be doing nudges in ways that don’t lie to people, that remain honest. And we design environments that nudge people in a particular direction, but we’re not manipulating them to act in that way.

I do feel like there’s a question mark over the way that personal fear has been stoked to get people to respond in particular ways. But that notwithstanding, I completely agree with you about coming to the data with a more circumspect approach. We’ve had a world of uncertainty for the last year or more. How anybody can be certain about how to respond to that, given that we’ve got all these welfare concerns, how we weight them and trade them off against one another and what the counterfactuals would have looked like, are just impossible for us to know. I am very, very uncomfortable with people who know for sure what the right approach should be, because I don’t know how they can. And they can be very confident that this is what we ought to be doing compared to other things, but they can’t know for sure.

You must be open, surely, to the fact that I can see a duck when you’re convinced it’s a rabbit, or vice versa. I mean, that has to be the case, especially in a world of radical uncertainty. I mean, that image can keep changing all the time. And to know all along that “It’s a duck, it must be a duck and we’re sticking with it”, that’s what troubles me. I’m certain in my uncertainty, and I’m certain that we need to be listening more to one another’s perspectives on how best to respond to not just the pandemic, but how to appropriately organize society or where the boundaries of the state are. These are all hugely challenging questions that my daughter and son will look at very, very differently, I’m sure, as they grow older. I want to be encouraging that difference and finding ways in which we can bring them together to have a conversation with one another, rather than one of them shouting the other one down as being wrong.

Brooke: That strikes me as a very eloquent place to tie up this conversation, this idea that we need to have good information out there in the ecosystem. And, as you bring forward with your LSE colleagues, information about wellbeing is really important to have in that conversation. But the idea that just having that information is going to show conclusively, “This is the direction that we must head, and there are no choices to make anymore,” that’s much more than what just having good information can promise. And we should be really wary about any kind of approach or messaging that leans in that direction.

Paul: Agreed, agreed. Thank you.

Brooke: Paul, thank you very much for this conversation today. It’s been great.Paul: Good. Thank you very much.

About the Guest

Paul Dolan

Paul Dolan is a Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. Paul is globally recognised for his work on the measurement of happiness, its causes and consequences, and the implications for public policy. He is the author of two bestselling books, ‘Happiness by Design’ and ‘Happy Ever After’, and has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles. His experience includes working with the UK’s Office for National Statistics and the government’s Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the ‘nudge unit’.He has previously held academic posts at the University of York, Newcastle University, the University of Sheffield and Imperial College London, and he has been a visiting scholar at Princeton University. 

 

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is Research Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of science. His dissertation research focused on the relationship between quantitative and qualitative research methods, and the relationship between research and other social systems such as language, history and politics. Since finishing his academic work, Dr. Struck has worked in science & innovation policy, first within the Canadian federal government, and then subsequently in the private sector at Science-Metrix. In recent years, he has been researching the interface of big data analytics with organizational decision-making structures, especially in policy-making contexts.

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