Professor Andrew Oswald tells us how research on happiness, bosses and suicide can lead to positive changeFriday 20 Jul 2018
Professor Andrew Oswald talks to us about his research and its impact on society
What research projects are you currently involved with?
I’m doing quite a lot of work on bosses. One of my most recently published papers is on the importance of what we call ‘technically competent’ bosses – we show in data from the UK and the US that the single strongest predictor of your job satisfaction is your boss’s competence. You might think that’s obvious - but the research literature is not focused on that, it’s focused on lots of other things, so we show that this is the strongest statistical predictor.
In the latest paper that has just been submitted – How common are bad bosses? - we calculate the number of bad bosses in 30 different countries – I shan’t tell you the number, because the paper is still in press. A random sample of about 30,000 people answered questions about their boss – does your boss give good advice, is your boss good at providing communication – a whole set of questions, and we asked them to rate their bosses from very good to very poor. And we aggregate it. We’re not expecting bosses to be outstanding, but we’re looking for the proportion of ones that get consistently negative scores on everything. We’re looking for patterns that are common to 30 countries.
I’m also working on suicide – I’ve been working on happiness for decades so it’s time to look at the dark side! Suicide of course is a very important, very sad phenomenon - about one in 8,000 people in any year in Western society kill themselves. And we’re looking at the peak age for suicide risk, which is approximately age 45, and trying to understand this. I think it’s a very important social problem.
Why did you choose happiness as your research field?
I came into Economics as a late teenager, because I was worried about unemployment and inflation, so I thought ‘I’ll solve them’ – and after that I got interested in human wellbeing. It seemed to me that nothing could be more important for any social scientist to understand.
There’s now a whole field on this – but twenty years ago people didn’t see the sense in it - it didn’t compute – it didn’t register. A young colleague (Andrew Clark, a Warwick grad, and then a PhD student) and I ran the first-ever economics of happiness conference, which was at LSE in 1993, put posters all over LSE, set out a hundred seats - and nobody came. Well, seven people came. It just did not register, but it’s such an obvious thing to study now.
I wanted to get to the bottom of the economic influences on human wellbeing, and then you get drawn into the other influences, and I’ve moved away from being a straight economist into becoming, in part, more of a behavioural scientist.
There’s a lot of talk these days about interdisciplinary research. The first papers we wrote, in 1991 and 1992, we were quoting psychology journals - it’s an area where fields are blended. My own view is that it is a bad idea to say ‘You should be doing interdisciplinary research.’ What people should do is work on topics that matter, and if you work on a topic, almost any topic relates to all sorts of other ones. In my own field, of human wellbeing, you’ve got health, psychology, history – all sorts of people.
Loads of people have now moved into the area but the economics of happiness to a very considerable extent started at Warwick. Before that, there was really only one fairly obscure article, which was in the 1970s by Richard Easterlin, who is now very glad that this research field has emerged to such prominence. You just have to accept as an academic that success means eventually people will forget where the original ideas came from – and that’s why we have universities.
What impact do you hope your research will have on society?
I hope a lot – I came into Economics to try to make the world a better place. I’ll be pleased if our work leads governments to change their criterion for success. There’s been an astonishing change in that way, though a lot of it isn’t visible yet. David Cameron was a big supporter of our early work, as was Tony Blair. Just two weeks ago I was in the Treasury, around a long table with Treasury officials looking down at my happiness equations, and trying to decide if they could bring this in to how they made public expenditure decisions.
Why did you join the Economics department at Warwick?
I like modern universities, I like campus universities. Oxford is about 850 years old and I did feel, there’s really nothing I can do that will alter the reputation of Oxford University. Whereas at Warwick - I’ve been here about half the life of the University, I was one of the very first people to go on the Today programme and Newsnight - Warwick has suited me very well. Vice Chancellors through the years have been very tolerant, they let me write about whatever I think is interesting. And I do consciously think, what’s the best way to contribute to Warwick. The department will be here long after I have gone, the trajectory is very encouraging. We compete on the world stage.
When you’re young, it’s an incredibly cut-throat business. There’s a world competition going on, and the Americans are working 75 hours a week. I went to Princeton in 1983, and I went there as a pretty cocky youngish man, I thought I was very hot stuff, the hardest working youngish economist at Oxford. And then I discovered that the Assistant Professors at Princeton went home when the lights in the library went off – around 11.30pm – and they worked all day Saturday and all day Sunday. And that makes you realise what you’re up against – the work rate is incredible. But as you get older, you start to think more about other people, and whole departments, and what you do changes a bit – I’m not so focused on getting my own name into the newspaper now. You have to decide, do you want publicity or do you want to do the science that will help change the world?
What has been your most memorable experience during your time in the department?
In the last quarter of a century?! It’s so hard to make a choice. Perhaps some of the early media stuff? Things are much calmer now but in the late 1990s almost every day I got contacted by a media person. I remember in around 2000 I was watching the BBC news and the presenter came on and said ‘here’s a happiness equation from the University of Warwick’, in a kind of ‘can you believe it!,’ tone, and there it was on the screen. And the first time I went live on Newsnight, to be interviewed
What is the next challenge for you?
One of the interesting things about a long career is that you reach a point where you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do any more. I published my first articles in the 1970s. I’ve written one or two books, so I may do another. The trouble is that doing research is so incredibly interesting! My favourite thing is to sit down on a quiet day and discover something new – that’s just a fantastic experience.