19 February 2010

Tendentious pop psychology financed by taxpayers

The newspapers continue to be full of nonsense stories, some of them generated by the so-called university system. In Wednesday’s Daily Mail we have an expert on happiness, Dr Chris Boyce from Warwick University, described as an 'economic psychologist', telling us why the latest lottery winners are bound to be unhappy. Presumably his assertions are based on years of training, including studying other people’s 'research', which probably cost millions to carry out.

Boyce’s own research generated the conclusion that a course of psychological therapy costing £800 provides the same amount of 'happiness' as a £25,000 windfall.

Or, to put it another way, therapy is 31 times more cost-effective in making people happier than a lottery win. *

If I had done research which produced this apparent result, I would be highly dubious of it, and suspect that there was something flawed in my methodology. In Boyce’s case, he seems to have taken the result at face value.

Boyce has a number of theories about why large amounts of money ought to make people unhappy. It is not clear whether these theories have empirical support, or simply reflect his own prejudices. In any case, research which claims to be investigating 'happiness' is almost certain to be dodgy, because there is no good way of measuring such a thing. You cannot simply go by what people happen to answer on a particular day in response to a question which cannot itself avoid being biased in one way or another.

Boyce’s theories about what ought to make people happy, and what ought not, include the following:

(1) A lottery winner spending his money in a visible way will find that his neighbours will be 'consumed with envy'.

(2) If he moves to better premises, his old friends will be no less jealous, and his new milieu could 'well be less than welcoming'. 'How will he escape the sycophants and money-grubbers?'

(3) He will still be jealous of others with more status or money, even if there are now fewer of them.

(4) Salaried jobs appear to Boyce to be an essential part of every person’s life.

Now we don’t know if they particularly enjoyed those jobs, but we can be certain of this: in leaving them, they will lose yet another component of a joyful life: connection with other people ... Without the discipline and structure provided by their jobs, there is a very real danger than their lives will lack purpose; their sense of self-worth will plummet.

And it goes on in this way.

I have no wish to single out Dr Boyce for this type of inanity. No doubt there are plenty of others like him, who produce tendentious pop psychology built around a tiny nugget of low-grade 'research'. But if you added up all their salaries, and the cost of the associated institutional environment, you would arrive at a rather considerable annual budget. If even a quarter of this was instead used to finance my own research organisation, there could be some hard-edged criticism being produced of the kind of biased folk sociology which nowadays seems to qualify as 'economics'. Now would that not be a far more productive use of resources?

* Daily Mail, 17 February 2010, article ‘Sorry ... but that £56 million won’t make them happy’ by Dr Chris Boyce.