I am a researcher at the Happier Lives Institute. In my work I assess the cost-effectiveness of life-improving interventions in terms of subjective well-being, right now I'm working on comparing psychotherapy to cataract surgery to cash transfers. Hopefully we can improve institutional decision-making by increasing our confidence in the which measures of well-being are most accurate without triggering hyphen-inflation.
Hi Akash, It's been a few months since your comment but I'm replying in case its still useful.
I'd be curious if you have a "rough sense" of why some programs seem to be so much better than others.
General note is that I am, for at least the next year, mostly staying away from comparing programs and instead will compare interventions. Hopefully one can estimate the impacts of a program from the work I do modeling interventions.
That being said let me try and answer your question.
One of the reasons why CTs make an elegant benchmark is there are relatively few moving parts on both ends. You inform someone they will receive cash. They then do what needs to be done to receive it, which at most means walking a long long ways. The issues with "quality" seem to arise primarily from A. How convenient they make it. and B. whether the provider reliably follow through with the transfers. Biggest variation I'm concerned with comes with administrative costs as share of the CT, which we still have very little information on. But that's a factor on the cost not effect side of things.
From this simple description, I expect the programs that do best are those that use digital or otherwise automatic transfers AND are reliable. I don't think this is situation where the best is 10x as good as average, I'm not sure there's enough play in the system (however 3-5x variation in cost effectiveness seems possible).
I think GiveDirectly is a good program and quite a bit better than the average government unconditional CT (can put a number on that in private if you'd like). I'm not saying it's the "best" because as I started this comment by saying, I'm not actively searching for the best program right now. I have some ideas for how we'd quickly compare programs though, I'd be happy to talk about that in private.
However, I can't help but comment that there are some hard to quantify factors I haven't incorporated that could favor government programs .For instance, there's evidence that CTs when reliably ran can increase trust in governments.
But the decision maker isn't always a donor. It may be a mid-level bureaucrat that can allocate money between programs, in which case intervention level analyses could be useful.
This might become even more important in analyses of other kinds of interventions, where the implementation factors might matter more.
But if they do, I think they could inflate the effect size of CT programs on life satisfaction (relative to the effect size that would be found if we used a measure of life satisfaction that was less likely to prime people to think materialistically).
I agree. It may be worth it to roughly classify the "materialness" of different measures and see if that predicts larger effects of a cash transfer.
I agree its uncontroversial that if there are multiple elements of well-being that don't necessarily have equal weights -- there will be a point at which getting more of the thing that matters less will be better overall than getting the thing that matters more.
Since Kaj included the Bryan Caplan quote it seemed to imbue the comment with a bit more opinion on what matters.
And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.
Getting back to the point. If a potential parent is told "you'll be less happy but your life will have more of (whatever meaning means)." I'm trying to express, that if that potential parent asked me if they should take that tradeoff (from a self interested perspective), I'd say "make sure you're getting a heck of a lot of meaning for every unit of happiness you lose".
Full disclosure: I'll probably make that tradeoff even though it doesn't seem like a great bargain.
As a deeper aside, it's odd that he defines meaning pretty much as life satisfaction / evaluation which is normally "how you evaluate your whole life". They obviously aren't the same to people if they give opposite rankings of countries.
It's hard for an anti-natal social movement to last the test of time.
I'd like to hear more discussion about this. If EA as a value system should last a very long time, is it sustainable to convert enough other people's children to make up for the fact that we aren't (presumably) having as many?
An example motivating that question follows. It builds on / rephrases one of David's replies.
Assuming there was only EAs and ineffective egoists (and the value systems are incompatible), and 1. each group was equally good at converting people from the other. 2. EAs had a relatively lower birthrate --> Then the set of values belonging to humans in the LR would be dictated by ineffective egoism.
This toy model illustrates that for EAs to have their values represented in the future of this admittedly weird world they have to either A. have as many kids as the ineffective egoists, B. get better at converting ineffective egoists or C. A combination of the two that comes out to stability or growth of the population holding EA values.
If I may abstract a bit from the Shakerism example...
I agree that we should be able to "convert" people more cheaply than other movements could in the past. But that doesn't mean EAs relatively lower fecundity couldn't pose some issues for the LR sustainability of the movement.
The question of "can we sustain the movement over time?" is whether 1. we can convert other peoples children more effectively than competing ideologies can convert ours and 2. that we can do so enough to make up for our relatively lower birthrates.
(Assuming we don't find a third way involving beings that don't die).
Maybe we convert our way to a stable transmission of values across generations, but I'm a bit skeptical since I'm having a hard time imagining a specific instance of a value system that made up for a lower birth rate by having a higher conversion factor. Catholicism? Since the priests / monks were prohibited from having children?
compared 132 different countries based on whether people felt that their life has an important purpose or meaning, African countries including Togo and Senegal were at the top of the ranking, while the U.S. and Finland were far behind.
I haven't explored this in depth, but it's worth stressing that this indicates that measures of meaning appear to lead to a much more counter intuitive ranking of countries than LS or happiness.
If meaning matters more to well-being than happiness or life satisfaction, then we are probably very, very wrong about what makes a life go well.
But the question isn't well defined, what is "so few?". If it means "basically none" then David's probably right. If it means "less than the average American" then probably. If it means "less than an average white westerner of similar education and income" then I don't know.
An aside follows: An example of these results communicated well is Micah Kaats thesis (which I think was related to HRI's WALY report). They show the relationship of different maladies to life satisfaction and contextualize it with different common effects of life events.
Moving from standard deviations to points on a 0-11 scale is a further difficulty.
Something else worth noting is that different estimation methods can lead to systematically different effect sizes.In the same thesis, Kaats shows that fixed effects model tend to have lower effects.
As Michael did in his report with StrongMinds, and Clark et al., did for two studies (moving to a better neighborhood and building cement floors in Mexico -- p. 207) in Origins of happiness, there have been estimates of cost effectiveness that take duration of effects into consideration, but they address only single studies. We wish to have a good understanding of evidence base as a whole before presenting estimates.
To further explain this last point, I have the view that the more scrutiny is applied to an effect the more it diminishes (can't cite a good discussion of this at the moment). Comparing the cost effectiveness of a single study to our synthesis could give the wrong impression. In our synthesis we try hard to include all the relevant studies where it's plausible that the first study we come across of an alternative well-being enhancing intervention is exceptionally optimistic in its effects.
Unfortunately, we do not have a clear picture yet of how many WELLBYs per dollar is a good deal. Cash transfers are the first intervention we (and I think anyone) have analyzed in this manner. Figuring this out is my priority and I will soon review the cost effectiveness of other interventions which should give more context. To give a sneak peak, cataracts surgery is looking promising in terms of cost effectiveness compared to cash transfers.
This an interesting topic, but one I haven't looked into much. I would like to see more work on this because while some claim that the link between prosocial spending and well-being is universal (Aknin et al., 2013) I wonder if that was a bit premature . The study I reference found cross sectional correlations between subjective well-being and prosocial spending in 136 countries and followed this up with a few small experiments that concurred.
Some other literature in the area for what it's worth: A series of recent pre-registered experiments (n =~ 7k) found mixed results (2 positive, 1 null) on the effect of prosocial spending (not giving exactly) on happiness (Aknin et al., 2020). Another experiment (n = 615) finds that people do not adapt to giving like they adapt to spending on themselves (O'Brien and Kassirer, 2018). Several studies find that the degree of warm glow is increased by being informed about its impact and having a greater orientation towards "meaning and authenticity" (n = 126) (Lai et al., 2020), another found that happier giving experiences were marked by feeling as if the choice was freely chosen, has a clear impact or is made towards a cause that the giver is connected to (Lok & Dunn, 2020 ).
Now comes the controversial line from a recent study (n = 325) that takes a different tact: "Regression results showed that saving a life decreased long-run happiness by 0.26 SD (P < 0.01) (Table 1, column 4) relative to receiving money, conditional on individual-specific baseline levels of happiness." from Falk & Graeber (2020).
Some comments on the above study (I haven't look at it in detail): By long-run they mean four weeks and they think saving a life means saving a life.
Under conservative assumptions, a donation of 350 euros—roughly $400 at the time—covers all costs incurred by Operation ASHA to identify, treat, and cure five more patients, which is equivalent to saving one additional human life in expectation.
Another relevant quote from the Falk & Graeber paper:
A positive correlation between prosocial behavior and happiness is a central empirical justifi- cation for the quest to donate more. Philosopher Peter Singer forcefully argues that altruism is not about self-sacrifice, but that the greatest happiness arises from helping other people (33).