Examining Well-being Through Economics

This summer, research assistants Jenn Meakem ’19 and Mike D’Antuono ’18 (pictured right) helped Dr. Kristen Cooper (economics) and her co-authors, Professors Daniel Benjamin (University of Southern California), Ori Heffetz (Cornell University) and Miles Kimball (University of Colorado), on a large survey-based research project. The project’s working title is “What do people want? Measuring preferences and well-being.” The main survey presents respondents with difficult choices, Dr. Cooper says: “Do you want more health, or do you want more financial security?”

“We use a statistical model to estimate the rate at which you’re willing to trade them off,” she explains. They run the survey on Amazon’s online labor market, called Mechanical Turk, where people participate in exchange for a cash reward.

Results from the survey indicate which of over 2,000 aspects of well-being are most important to respondents. The aspects include “very broad things and all the specific ones in between,” says Jenn, an economics major.

She gestures to a small table covered with index cards and pulls another stack of cards from a file cabinet. On each is written a concept, “from ‘you knowing how to live the good life’ to ‘you not having to deal with sleaziness,’” she says. Those concepts “are pulled from all sorts of literature throughout the centuries” and demonstrate different ideas about what is important to people, Jenn explains.

The researchers are using the tools of economic theory and “looking at all the things that people want,” says Dr. Cooper, but instead of focusing on market goods, they’re studying underlying desires and needs: “not thinking ‘people want cars,’ but ‘people want to get where they need to go, people want to feel free, people want to feel speed and excitement.’”

The long-term goal is to create “an index of well-being” which could be used in further research—for example, to track the effects of government policies on well-being.

Jenn and Mike began on the project in January as part of an independent study with Dr. Cooper. The student assistants each have specific points of focus. For example, they created a computer program to explore the wording of the aspects, using results from psychological research on word connotations.

Both research assistants have helped to develop surveys and analyze survey data, which Mike has especially focused on. They’ve gained skills in several software programs—LaTeX, Microsoft Excel, Python and Stata—and delved further into the project’s field, behavioral economics.

Both are interested in behavioral economics, which examines “how people think, their behavior, and how they will react to certain questions or ideas” within the context of economics, says Mike, a double major in mathematics and economics. For him, the most interesting part of the research is the conversations with the other researchers; “we have fun and productive discussions” interpreting data, he says. Jenn notes that when immersed in one aspect of the project, it’s crucial to have feedback from others who can provide a broader perspective and ask clarifying questions.

Both students have gained experience for the future. Their work “helped confirm that research isn’t cut-and-dry,” says Jenn. “You have to think outside of the box. There are so many tangents that you find that are really important.”

“This research project has certainly sparked more interest in the economics field,” says Mike, who plans to continue studying economics after graduating. “I cannot wait to see all that I can do with it!”

By Morgan Clayton ’19, history