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Social Preferences, Well-Being and Policy

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - SOWELL (Social Preferences, Well-Being and Policy)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-09-30

The overall aim of the SOWELL project is to advance the research on the theory and empirics of social preferences and well-being. The project is organised in three parts:

PART 1 – Big Data: New Behavioural Measures and Analysis of Social Preferences and Well-Being

The first part of SOWELL is aimed at developing new theoretical and empirical foundations of well-being by using large-scale behavioural measures made possible by the Big Data revolution. This approach has much to offer when it comes to expanding our understanding of social preferences and well-being in real world situations.

PART 2 – Foundations of Social Preferences and Well-Being

The second part of SOWELL exploits these large-scale behavioural measures of social preferences and well-being in order to understand their foundations. Why do social preferences vary so widely from one place to another and from one person to the next? How do these social preferences relate to other cognitive and social skills and to emotional well-being? What is the role of individual life experience versus social norms and inequalities in shaping social preferences?

PART 3 – New paradigms to evaluate the effect of policies

The last part of SOWELL proposes going beyond traditional economic indicators in order to evaluate policies based on their qualitative and quantitative effects on social preferences and well-being. If social preferences and well-being are assigned high value for human development, it becomes urgent to identify the policies that foster them, and to employ appropriate indicators to capture their effects on social cooperation and on well-being.
There have been significant achievements in all three areas of the SOWELL project, which have led to some important conclusions for advancing the research on the theory and empirics of social preferences and well-being

PART 1 – Big Data: New Behavioural Measures and Analysis of Social Preferences and Well-Being

By using large-scale behavioural measures made possible by the Big Data revolution, we have been able to develop new theoretical and empirical foundations of trust and well-being. The results of this line of research have been published in the following papers :

o “Well-Being through the Lens of the Internet”, (in PloS one),
o “Trust and its Determinants: Evidence from the Trustlab Experiment” (submitted to Nature Human Behavior)
o “Trust, Social Progress and Well-Being” (in Handbook of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress)
o “Social Exchange and the Reciprocity Roller Coaster: Evidence from the Life and Death of Virtual Teams” (forthcoming in Organization Science 2021)

PART 2 – Foundations of Social Preferences and Well-Being

In the second part of the ERC, I investigated the foundations of social preferences, with a particular focus on the role of individual life experience, by using both natural and laboratory experiments. The three corresponding papers are:

o “Childhood Environmental Harshness Predicts Coordinated Health and Reproductive Strategies” (in Evolution and Human Behavior)
o “Childhood harshness predicts long-lasting leader preferences” (in Evolution and Human Behavior)
o “Friendship Networks, Trust and Political Opinions: A Natural Experiment among Future French Politicians” (submitted to Review of Economic Studies)


PART 3 – New paradigms to evaluate the effect of policies

This last part of my project was by far the most extensive in scope and intensity. Here we used both randomized control trials to examine the impact of non-cognitive skills development on academic, professional, economic and other outcomes and large-scale survey implementation to understand the role of trust in voting preferences and in citizens' behaviours and attitudes during crisis situations. The following publications have thus far resulted from this part of the SOWELL project:
o “The Impact of Childhood Social Skills and Self-Control Training on Economic and non-Economic Outcomes: evidence from a randomized experiment using administrative data” (forthcoming in American Economic Review)
o “Association Between Childhood Behaviors and Adult Employment Earnings” (JAMA Psychiatry)
o “Behaviors in kindergarten are associated with trajectories of long-term welfare receipt: A 30-year population-based study” (Development and Psychopathology)
o “Inattention in boys from low-income backgrounds predicts welfare receipt: a 30-year prospective study” (Psychological Medicine)
o “The Role of Mindset in Education: A Large-Scale Field Experiment in Disadvantaged Schools” (Working Paper Sciences Po)
o “Les origines du populisme” (Book for La République des idées)
o “Les Français, le Bien-Etre et l’Argent (Editions de la rue d’Ulm)
o “The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism” (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity)
o “The rise of populism and the collapse of the left-right paradigm: Lessons from the 2017 French presidential election” (CEPR working paper)
o “Trust in Scientists in Times of Pandemic: Panel Evidence from 12 countries” (forthcoming in PNAS)
There are two main areas where the SOWELL project has likely extended the research field beyond the state of the art.

The first one relates to educational policies. There has been a long-standing debate about the ability of educational policy to improve outcomes for children and adults through interventions targeted at social skills development. The current literature has been limited by a lack of long term evidence and the inability to disentangle the impact of non-cognitive skills from other skills. In our analysis of the MLES programme, we have been able to address both of these issues, providing convincing proof that non-cognitive skills training can provide positive long term social and economic benefits. We think the results of our research can be a touch point much like the Perry Pre-School Program has been.

The second relates to the importance of trust for understanding the rise of populism and for handling 21st century crises. Regarding the rise of populism, we are able to explain for the first time why anti-system voters move either to the extreme left or the populist right. While all anti-system voters share high levels of distrust in institutions, it is interpersonal trust (e.g. in others, neighbours, family, friends) that distinguishes one set of voters from another. Those going left have it, those going right do not. As a result, we can also understand why those who might need it most nevertheless vote for parties that oppose redistributive policies. Regarding the role of trust in understanding the resilience of societies during crisis times, we find that low levels of trust in government can fuel low levels of trust in scientists during health crises, one critical component being a perceived lack of independence. To shore up confidence in experts for future crises, it may be crucial to preserve their independence from government institutions. A lesson which we may need to apply sooner rather than later.
Big data
Big Data, be happy