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Subjective changes or subjective levels in life satisfaction: which performs better?

The causal effect of a health treatment on beliefs, stated preferences and memories

Alberto Prati and Charlotte Saucet


The paper estimates the causal effect of a health treatment on patients’ beliefs, preferences and memories about the treatment. It exploits a natural experiment which occurred in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. UK residents could choose to opt into the vaccination program, but not which vaccine they received. The assignment to a vaccine offered little objective information for learning about its qualities, but triggered strong psychological demand for reassuring beliefs. We surveyed a sample of UK residents about their beliefs on the different COVID-19 vaccines before and after receiving their jab. Before vaccination, individuals exhibit similar prior beliefs and stated preferences about the different vaccines. After vaccination, however, they update their beliefs overly optimistically about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine they received, state that they would have chosen it if they could, and have distorted memories about their past beliefs. These results cannot be explained by conventional experience effects. At the aggregated level, they show that random assignment to a health treatment predicts a polarization of opinions about its quality. At the individual level, these findings provide evidence in line with the predictions of motivated beliefs and over-inference from weak signals in a real-world health setting.

Vaccine views distorted by what people would like to be true, research finds

  • People’s opinions about scientific knowledge are influenced by what people would like to be true, according to a study of UK attitudes to COVID-19 vaccinations
  • Individuals were found to view ‘their’ vaccine as safer and more effective than alternatives – even despite what they may have previously stated
  • Findings are published today (Wednesday) in the Journal of Health Economics

A study of the UK population’s attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines has revealed how psychological factors can distort opinions about scientific facts.

New research, published today (Wednesday) in the Journal of Health Economics, tracked how a sample of 856 UK residents viewed the Pfizer and Moderna jabs both before and after their vaccination.

The vaccination policy in the UK, which did not allow patients to choose the type of their vaccine, provided researchers with a rare real-world opportunity for a natural experiment to study the dynamics of memory and beliefs in a personal health context.

Individuals were asked for their opinions of both the safety and effectiveness of both vaccines, as well as – if given the choice – whether they would choose a Pfizer or Moderna dose.

They found that, on average, individuals viewed ‘their’ vaccine as far better than they used to think, both in terms of its safety and its effectiveness.

There was also a trend for people to misremember their previously-stated beliefs, tending to believe that they thought well of their own vaccine all along, and would have chosen it if they could: even if they had previously stated a different preference.

Researchers believe that this uptick in optimism can be explained by a combination of motivated reasoning (where the desire to achieve a certain conclusion impacts our support of evidence), and humans’ tendency to overvalue events which are poorly informative (like one’s own experience with vaccination).

The findings shows that people tend to display retrospective optimism. Revising one’s own memories and opinions can protect individuals’ wellbeing by reducing fear and anxiety, especially given the irreversible nature of vaccine injection.

A previous study at the Wellbeing Research Centre found a similar form of retrospective optimism also using happiness measures.

Dr Alberto Prati, Ajinomoto Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre, Assistant Professor in Economics at the University College London, and co-author of the study, said:

“I think we helped uncover the roots of why people disagree. When people developed different hopes for what the scientific truth is, they ended up disagreeing about it. This shows that disagreement is more than a simple matter of different amounts of knowledge.”

Dr Charlotte Saucet, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and co-author for the study, said:

“This study teaches us that beliefs are very adaptive. They change as a function of humans’ needs and desires. In real life, it is quite rare to have situations that allow to observe this phenomenon as neatly as during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK.”

The causal effect of a health treatment on beliefs, stated preferences and memories’ is published in the Journal of Health Economics.

Image: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street, reproduced under license CC BY 2.0 DEED.

Das ambivalente Gefühl

Deutschlandfunk Kultur

Wenn man älter wird, werden die Partys langweiliger, aber das dort servierte Essen immer besser. Sprüche, die man auf Partys jenseits der 30 hört. Aber war früher wirklich alles besser und war man vor allem glücklicher? Eine Studie gibt Antworten.

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Are You Happier Now Than Last Year?

Psychology Today

But how reliable and accurate are your memories of last year?

This is not a trivial question. If your memories of last year are somehow biased or distorted, then your appraisal of your happiness trajectory—and by extension, your life—may be distorted.

A recent (2020) paper by Alberto Prati (University of Oxford) and Claudia Senik (Sorbonne University) set out to explore this issue. The researchers first mined a large data set from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), analyzing longitudinal data from over 20,000 participants.

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Inflation may be coming down but its unequal effects can still have a big impact on wellbeing

The Conversation UK

Who’s right about price inflation? Everyone. The point is that inflation is not the same for everyone.

Over the same period, and in the same country, different people experience different inflation rates. This is an acknowledged economic fact known as inflation inequality.

In theory, people who are the most exposed to inflation should be the ones who endure a larger wellbeing loss as prices rise. In a recent study, I showed this, using data from France’s official consumer confidence survey.

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Dr. Alberto Prati

Alberto Prati is an Assistant Professor in Economics at the University College London, where he teaches economic psychology. He also serves as a Research Fellow of the Wellbeing Research Centre, University of Oxford, and as an associate of the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.

Alberto’s research has shown how the investigation of memory biases can improve the interpretation and statistical analysis of subjective satisfaction data. He has also used satisfaction data from large surveys to estimate the connection of wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviors, as well as the wellbeing impact of inflation inequalities. Life satisfaction is a cognitive judgment, while happiness is an emotion: some of Alberto’s experimental research has built bridges between these two dimensions, and investigated the mechanisms underlying how people decide what they want to believe and to remember.

Currently, Alberto is working on solving some fundamental issues in the measurement of life satisfaction, with the aim of outlining some practical advice to help producers and users of wellbeing data. Apart from his focus on wellbeing, he has been working on several measurement puzzles, e.g., how to measure unobservable inequalities, and how to estimate time preferences accurately.

The Ajinomoto Research Fellowship is supported by Ajinomoto Co, Inc.

Happiness study reveals a critical difference between two types of people


Humans have a complicated relationship with happiness. Consider this study on the subject: Scientists found that valuing happiness can lead to less happiness when you feel happy. It’s an emotional rollercoaster fueled by unhelpful expectations.

Yet the relationship gets more complex still. According to a recent paper published in the journal Psychological Science our current state of well-being can interfere with our perception of the past…

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Research reveals ‘deep asymmetry’ in life satisfaction recall

A newly-published large-scale study has described how people tend to overstate the improvement in their wellbeing over time, and to understate their past happiness.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, was led by Dr Alberto Prati of the Wellbeing Research Centre, University of Oxford, alongside Professor Claudia Senik (Sorbonne, Paris School of Economics).

The pair analysed data from more than 60,000 adults across the UK, USA, France and Germany spanning from the 1970s to present day. They used these longitudinal surveys to compare how a person’s perception of their wellbeing changes over time.

While the precise questions asked differed by country, in all four studies individuals were asked to rate their life satisfaction on a numeric scale, and for their rating of their past life satisfaction.

Their findings show what the researchers describe as a ‘deep asymmetry’, where happy people tend to recall the evolution of their life to be better than it was, and unhappy ones tend to exaggerate their life’s negative evolution. This suggests that people’s remembered wellbeing is actually much more dynamic than previously stated, and seems to be influenced by their current level of life satisfaction.

And the findings bolster existing research which shows happy people to be more optimistic1, perceive risks to be lower2 and are more open to new experiences3 compared to their unhappier counterparts.

Dr Alberto Prati, Research Fellow at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and Assistant Professor at University College London, said: “Answering the question ‘how satisfied are you with your life?’ is an act of memory.

“Therefore, if we want to understand life satisfaction, we need to understand how people reconstruct their life narrative and recall their past happiness. There is much more to do for this, and Claudia and I are already working on the next steps.”

Feeling Good Is Feeling Better’ is published in Psychological Science.

  1. Foster, G., Frijters, P., & Johnston, D. W. (2012). The triumph of hope over disappointment: A note on the utility value of good health expectations. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33(1), 206–214.
  2. Johnson, E. J., & Tversky, A. (1983). Affect, generalization, and the perception of risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 20–31.
  3. Furnham, A., & Petrides, K. (2003). Trait emotional intelligence and happiness. Social Behavior and Personality, 31(8), 815–823

Feeling Good Is Feeling Better

Alberto Prati and Claudia Senik

Can people remember their past happiness? We analyzed data from four longitudinal surveys from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany spanning from the 1970s until the present, in which more than 60,000 adults were asked questions about their current and past life satisfaction. We uncovered systematic biases in recalled happiness: On average, people tended to overstate the improvement in their well-being over time and to understate their past happiness. But this aggregate figure hides a deep asymmetry: Whereas happy people recall the evolution of their life to be better than it was, unhappy ones tend to exaggerate their life’s negative evolution. It thus seems that feeling happy today implies feeling better than yesterday. This recall structure has implications for motivated memory and learning and could explain why happy people are more optimistic, perceive risks to be lower, and are more open to new experiences.

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