Feelings 'ratings' are highly predictive of future behaviour – research

Tuesday 4th Oct 2022, 10.32am

Every day, we are asked to rate our feelings on a scale of one to 10: how happy are we with a new lawn mower, how helpful was the bank clerk, how easy was it to fill in the tax return. Such scales are criticised by economists and governments as meaningless. But, new research from Oxford shows a person’s own rating of their feelings – even on such seemingly arbitrary scales – is of greater predictive power, in terms of action, than a collection of socioeconomic measures.

The research, led by Dr Caspar Kaiser of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and the University’s Institute for New Economic Thinking, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used data from three quarters of a million people across three countries.

Dr Kaiser and Professor Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, compared self-reported feelings integers – for example, where individuals were asked to rate their satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10 – to later ‘get-me-out-of-here’ actions.

The research shows feelings integers or ratings are generally of greater predictive power than combined socioeconomic variables

When individuals choose to leave their current setting, it is an unambiguous signal of human dissatisfaction with the status quo. For the purposes of this study, the authors looked at four types of get-me-out-of-here action: moving dwellings, changing intimate partners, leaving jobs, and hospital visits.

Their research shows feelings integers or ratings are generally of greater predictive power than combined socioeconomic variables, including household income, marital status, education and number of children, among others.

The researchers looked at 34 years of data in Germany, 25 years in the UK and 20 years in Australia, and describe a stable and almost linear relationship between a single feelings’ integer and these self-driven life changes, in all three countries.

Dr Kaiser, a researcher with INET, which is part of the Oxford Martin School, said, ‘We do not know if our results will replicate more globally, especially in low- and middle-income countries. An interesting next step would be to examine if the observed action-satisfaction associations systematically differ across population groups, for instance between men and women or across age.’

The scientific value of numerical measures of human feelings’ is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.