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The Importance of Paying Attention I: Public Policy

Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. The author also pondered on the nature of happiness[1], but he never made this observation on the importance of attention: it knows the value of everything but the price of nothing. If there is a single lesson happiness seekers must retain from all of the research on well-being is that nothing can bring joy or sadness, pleasure or pain, unless it first has our attention.

Professor Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics has worked very closely with the UK’s official number cruncher, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistics. Yet he is very critical of the use of survey responses for policymaking when the public is asked what is important to them. This is because the simple posing of the question encourages people to think about issues they might ordinarily not have thought about. As soon as attention is drawn to the issue it suddenly matters to the respondents. But as soon as the survey is over and the public goes back to not thinking about the issue, it ceases to matter. If public policy is driven by the survey responses, resources are likely to be diverted to activities that people care little about in reality. In the words of Daniel Kahneman: “Nothing in life is important in life as you think it is whilst you are thinking about it.”

For example, Dolan conducted a study to find out how much the monetary value of a car contributes to the pleasure the owner draws from it. He asked motorists: How much pleasure do you get from your car? When he compared the responses to an objective measure of the monetary value of the vehicles, he discovered a positive correlation of 40 percent. As a rule, the more expensive cars tended to bring more driving pleasure to their owners. However, the results changed when he asked: How much pleasure did you get from your car the last time you drove it? In this case, the correlation with the monetary value of the car was zero; it simply did not matter. What this means is that car owners enjoyed driving the car when they were thinking about the attributes of the vehicle, i.e., when the cars had the drivers’ attention, but not when they weren’t. It is for this reason Professor Dolan has huge reservations about public policy that results from questions of the type: “How much would you be willing pay to have advantage x, or to avoid disadvantage y?” The very posing of the question encourages people to think about advantage x or disadvantage y. When these things have our attention, they matter more than they would otherwise.


[1]Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go. – Oscar Wilde



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