Sad Sundays and Overconfident Surveys

A key assumption in many social sciences is that people have preferences, and that these are both knowable and stable. That's the point of surveys on every subject from whipped topping to the nature of happiness. We want to know what people want, or how they feel, or what they plan--so we ask, assuming the answers will be reliable.

But why should they be? People's moods rise and fall, their circumstances change all the time--and those shifts have a big impact on what they feel and what they want. Case in point: "Subjective well-being.'' Surveyers often ask people, for example, to pick a number between 0 and 10 to indicate how satisfied they are with their lives, all in all. The results have established the supposed facts that married people are happier than singles, that women in their 30's and 40's aren't too happy, and that beyond a basic floor of income, money doesn't buy happiness.


Trouble is, people's satisfaction with their lives seems to be sensitive to transient circumstances. Ask them three times, you'll get three different answers. For example, as Alpaslan Akay and Peter Martinsson found in this working paper last month, people's replies to the "how satisfied'' question changed depending on what day of the week they were asked. (Sunday, according to their analysis of data on German workers, is the glummest day.) Unless a poll asks the same people the same question over time, then, how do we know what it measures?

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
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Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

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The culprit of increased depression among teens? Smartphones, new research suggests.

A new study, led by psychologist Jean Twenge, points to the screen as the problem.

A teenager eyes her smartphone as people enjoy a warm day on the day of silence, one day prior to the presidential elections, when candidates and political parties are not allowed to voice their political meaning on April 14, 2018 in Kotor, Montenegro. Citizens from Montenegro, the youngest NATO member, will vote for a new president on Sunday 15 2018. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Surprising Science
  • In a new study, adolescents and young adults are experiencing increased rates of depression and suicide attempts.
  • The data cover the years 2005–2017, tracking perfectly with the introduction of the iPhone and widespread dissemination of smartphones.
  • Interestingly, the highest increase in depressive incidents was among individuals in the top income bracket.
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U.S. reacts to New Zealand's gun ban

On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
  • Others note the inherent differences between the two nations, arguing that it is a good thing that it is relatively hard to pass such legislation in such a short timeframe.
  • The ban will surely shape future conversations about gun control in the U.S.
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