Dr Daniel Sgroi talks about his research interests and his work with the World Wellbeing PanelTuesday 13 Nov 2018
What are your research interests and what current research projects are you are involved in?
I was originally an economic theorist and I retain an interest in trying to understand how people act in different situations. These days I tend to use experiments to get at what is underpinning people’s behaviour. I have around ten or so projects at different stages and most include either laboratory or field experiments. To give some examples, I am working with some of my students to try to understand how mindfulness changes the way we think, and on the role of personality in how we form beliefs about others, and with a former student (now in Oxford) on why people might ignore good advice. I am also running a field experiment attempting to understand what motivates people to become organ donors. A lot of my other work relates to subjective wellbeing, or happiness: for instance, my first paper on the subject established that happier people are more productive, but more recently I have work that shows that happier people can also be less cooperative! This was something of a surprise but actually fits in with some recent work in neuroscience on the way happier people think.
You were invited to join the World Wellbeing Panel – could you tell us more about this
The World Wellbeing Panel is a one-of-a-kind group of some of the leading “happiness economists” in the world including people like Richard Easterlin (who pretty much founded the area and is known for his paradox: that richer nations are not necessarily filled with happier people), Richard Layard, and my colleagues at Warwick, Andrew Oswald and Nick Powdthavee. The idea is that each month we are asked questions drawn up by academics, policy-makers or journalists about happiness and policy. For instance, a recent question we were asked concerned the role of gender stereo-types and their effect on happiness, and it was interesting to see so many different opinions from the panel.
Why did you choose to become a researcher?
I have always loved puzzles and to me that is what research is all about: solving puzzles. I spent a year in the mid-1990s as an economic consultant. It mainly entailed using other people’s research to support the activity of large businesses. It was an interesting enough job but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. To keep the puzzle analogy going, I think when I was a consultant I was still trying to solve puzzles but using the solutions developed by other people and that was just not satisfying enough. Now I am still playing the same game, but this time I am working out the answers myself (or working them out with the help of other researchers who are willing to work with me!)
For instance, I mentioned a project I am working on right now that looks at why people ignore good advice. This is a genuine puzzle and I now have a better feel for why people will often accept lower payoffs rather than take advice and do things differently. It seems to be related to the “sunk cost fallacy” (people feel that they have invested in their beliefs and so are reluctant to change them even if they know it would benefit them to do so) and also psychological factors like envy and self-esteem.
What has been the impact of your research nationally and internationally?
The work I undertook with Andrew Oswald and Eugenio Proto on the positive effects of happiness on productivity in the workplace has had a lasting impact, at least it seems to remain a topical issue for the media if that is any indication. I think we have now well over a hundred and fifty news stories on our research spanning several years and many countries, and there are still media hits coming out every month. We know that managers and firms are considering how to change working environments to capitalise on decades of research in this area and hopefully the media excitement about our work is bringing it to the attention of employers who will find our contribution useful. Certainly when we have gone out and talked with private and public sector managers and practitioners they seem very enthusiastic: for example, an event organised by CAGE and the Social Market Foundation in London a few years ago was packed, though perhaps right now (with Brexit on the horizon) happiness and productivity is not foremost on their minds.
More recently, I have been working on building an index of national happiness using text: we have a reasonable measure of national happiness for recent decades based on survey data but nothing for the past, and by examining what people read and wrote we think we can provide an interesting way to trace how national happiness has evolved over a period of centuries. My co-authors (Eugenio Proto and Thomas Hills) and I have spent a fair bit of time promoting this project everywhere we can (the World Bank, Treasury, Office of National Statistics and many other places besides) and hopefully when our final efforts see print (the work is under revision for a journal right now) we will be able to convince people to start using it to better understand what has been driving national happiness over the last 200 years.
What has been your most memorable experience during your time in the department?
Warwick Economics is a big and busy department with so much happening and it has been great to be a part of it. I don’t think I would be working on subjective wellbeing if it wasn’t for Andrew Oswald’s influence, and I have enjoyed working with Andrew and Eugenio a great deal. I loved speaking at the CAGE policy launch for our “Understanding Happiness” briefing report: being on a panel with the former cabinet secretary (Lord O’Donnell) and the then head of the Government Economic Service (Sir Dave Ramsden) was a fantastic experience, and being invited to join the World Wellbeing Panel was a nice form of recognition. One of the most fun times I had was actually when I was on leave at the Centre for Experimental Social Science in Oxford: it was great returning to Oxford as a Warwick person, seeing one of the oldest universities in the world with the perspective bestowed on me by one of its youngest rivals. I also enjoy teaching and was very happy to receive a University teaching commendation: there are countless great teaching moments that stick in my memory and it is hard to beat a standing ovation after a good lecture!
However, if I am being honest there is one clear winner over the last 11 years at Warwick: the birth of my son in 2009. Since I need to somehow link that to the department, then let me say coming along to a staff and family event organised by the department, with my new-born son wearing his “microeconomist” sleepsuit!