Using Memories to Assess the Intrapersonal Comparability of Wellbeing Reports
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
Research on subjective wellbeing typically assumes that responses to survey questions are comparable across respondents and across time. Unfortunately, if this assumption is violated, standard methods in empirical research may mislead. I address this concern with three contributions. First, I give a theoretical analysis of the extent and direction of bias that results from violations of this assumption. Second, I propose to use respondents’ memories of past life satisfaction to estimate and thereby to correct for differentials in scale use. Third, using the proposed approach, I test whether wellbeing reports are intrapersonally comparable across time. Using British panel data, I find that the direction in which explanatory variables affect latent satisfaction is typically the same as the direction in which scale use is affected. Unemployment and widowhood have particularly strong effects on scale use. Nevertheless, scale shifts are generally not large enough to affect the sign or statistical significance of estimates compared to models that do not account for scale shifts. Finally, although discussed in the context of life satisfaction scales, the proposed approach is applicable to a wide range of other subjectively reported constructs.