Why Are Academics So Weird?

A few weeks back Ilya, Megan McArdle, and Arnold Kling had a go-around with the question of why academics are less happy in their jobs than other people. Assume for the sake of argument that is true, and I think there is some truth to it. I think I'm thinking along the same lines as Ilya, Megan, and Arnold, but here's how I think of it. This is all overgeneralized, but I think captures the essential dynamic.

Most Americans work in a money economy. The good thing about a money-based economy is that wealth is inherently a positive-sum game. Sure, there are some zero-sum aspects to it, but more money for by neighbor doesn't mean less for me. Thus, it is possible for all of us to get richer without any inherent zero-sum rivalry.

Academia, by contrast, is a status-based economy rather than a money-based economy. Status, unlike income, is an inherently zero-sum game. I can only have more status if you have less--status is all relative and positional. This means that at any given time those with less status are trying to gain more status. And those with high status are tenuously trying to hold on to their high status--with the threats coming from those with lower status trying to knock them off.

Now here's where it gets kind of twisted--given that the money-based economy is the default rule in America, who is it that are most likely to self-select into a status-based economy? You got it--those are are most motivated by status. So those who will self-select into the status-based economy are those who have a different tradeoff between status and income than the typical person. Indeed, the salary scale in academia is very flat when compared to that in other occupations, especially those comparable for academics such as law and business.

What this means is that we get those who are most obsessed and insecure about status entering into the status-based economy.

So I think this might explain some of the peculiarites of the sociology of our profession to outsiders. Outsiders often are baffled by the sorts of battles that consume academics and our obsession about things like whether our work is cited. "Who cares?" whether your article was cited asks my wife (well, she doesn't actually say it but you can tell she's thinking it). But that's the point--citations are not merely a means to higher income (as they would be in the standard economy) but in many ways they are the primary reward or income itself.

There is the old saying that "academic battles are so vicious because the stakes are so small." That's nonsense. There are middle managers all over America right this moment backstabbing each other for a nicer office or better parking space. What makes academic battles so vicious, I think, is that there is the status battle tied up in them.

Moreover, an academic's work is personal in a sense that most people's work is not. Your identity is tied to your work in a very different way from say, an electrician or a car manufacturer. It is an extension of your identity. So when your work is ignored or criticized, it is very difficult not to take it personally. Again, this reinforces the nefarious status dynamic.

So that's my view as to why academics are so weird. And why they often seem unhappy as well--it is difficult to be truly comfortable in your particular status ranking because there is always relative positioning going on. As Arnold Kling stresses, this suggests that the only way to be truly happy as an academic is to try to opt-out of the status arms-race: "Once you get on the ego treadmill, not only do you become bitter, but you have to start viewing others not for their intrinsic qualities but for their usefulness as stepping stones. If you can stay off of the ego treadmill, then success becomes more a matter of being near friends and living in an area with the type of amenities you prefer."

That's the main thing, I think. In talking about academics and happiness, however, as a purely empirical matter there is one possible other factor that might be relevant. And let me stress that this is being presented as purely correlation and not causation, positive not normative. Research indicates that those who are conservative and religious tend, on average, to be more likely to be happy than those who are not. To the extent that academics are disproportionately non-conservative and non-religious--which is plainly the case--as a purely statistical matter one would predict that academics would be less likely to be happy than the general population.

I was recently reading William F. Buckley's book Nearer, My God. He did make one interesting point in passing, which is something along the lines that he had known some people during his life who would have been happier had they known that a divine force was looking out for them. (I can't recall the exact quote as I thought the book itself pretty mediocre and got rid of it as soon as I finished reading it, so I don't have it here to reference the exact quote). But there is an interesting point here, which is that it seems that those of religious conviction are often happier and more contented with their life than others.

Critics might respond that perhaps they should be unhappier and that religion is just a delusion to keep them from confronting how terrible their plight in life is. But that's not the point--the point is that whether they should be unhappy or not, reserach indicates those who are religious in fact are happier than others and my casual observation of people suggests that conclusion seems plausible to me. I'll save my speculations on why that might be for another day (I think the argument looks something like this), and simply note here the empirical point and the plausibility to me of those empirical results.

Again, on this second point, the observation is purely an empirical conclusion, not a normative one, and would be a theory grounded in the type of people who are represented in academia rather than anything inherent in academia itself.


I should emphasize that I myself am not unhappy to be a law professor. In fact, I love it. And I've also worked in private practice and in the government. So this post is based on generalizations of those experiences.

Academics and Happiness Revisited:

Todd makes many good points in his recent post on academics and happiness. I think that Todd is absolutely right that, relative to the general economy, the academic economy tends to be status-based. He is also right that the struggle for status among academics tends to generate unhappiness because it is inherently a zero-sum game. My status can't rise unless some other academic's status falls.

That said, I don't think this proves that academics, overall, are less happy than members of other professions. The zero-sum conflict over status is a source of unhappiness that is more prevalent in academia than elsewhere. But academia also offers unique opportunities for happiness that most other professions don't have, or at least not to the same extent. These include the ability to work on ideas that interest you, controlling your own schedule, and influencing public debate.

For the reasons I discussed in this post, I therefore continue to believe that, on balance, academics are no more unhappy with their jobs then people working in most other professions.

The status problem and other arguments claiming that academics are unhappy because of the nature of their jobs should be rigorously distinguished from claims that academics are unhappy because the people who go into academia tend to be unhappy for reasons unrelated to their jobs. Todd's argument that academics tend to be unhappy because they are disproportionately nonreligious falls into the latter category. Or at least it does so unless one claims that nonreligious academics lost their faith as a result of going into academia. I would guess, however, that most nonreligious academics held those beliefs even before they took academic jobs.

My view on academics' happiness is that they are generally happier with their jobs than professionals in most other fields. I am agnostic on the question of where academics' overall happiness with their lives ranks.

Does Religious Belief Increase Happiness?

Todd's excellent recent post on academics and happiness also raises the much broader question of whether religious belief causes happiness. Some studies, including Arthur Brooks' recent important work, do claim to show a correlation between the two. However, the argument that this proves that being religious makes you happier has two serious flaws.

I. Correlation vs. Causation.

First, even if we prove that there is a correlation between religious belief and happiness, that is not the same thing as proving causation. It could be that people who are happy for reasons unrelated to religion are more likely to be religious. There are a number of plausible scenarios under which this theory would be true. For example, it may be that a tendency towards social conformity makes people happier because they clash less with social norms and the people around them. And conformists are more likely to be religious than nonconformists (at least in an overwhelmingly religious society such as the US). An interesting test of this hypothesis would be to see whether religious believers are (controlling for other variables) happier than atheists in majority-atheist societies such as Denmark, Japan, and the Czech Republic.

II. Measuring Religious Belief vs. Measuring Attendance at Religious Services.

Second, and much more important, the studies do not in fact find even a correlation between happiness and religious belief. What they show is a correlation between happiness and attendance at religious services. For example, Brooks, in the article linked above, shows that "religious" people are much more likely to report being "very happy" in surveys than "secular" people. However, he defines "religious" people as those who say they "attend houses of worship at least once per week" and "secular" as those who say they "never" attend houses of worship.

This is a crucial distinction. It is highly likely that all Brooks' work and other similar studies have shown is that religious believers who go to services regularly are happier than those believers who never do so. Brooks' "secular" category includes some 20 percent of the American population. Yet other survey data shows that atheists and agnostics make up only about 3 to 9 percent of the population. Even if all the atheists and agnostics in Brooks' survey were counted as "secular," it would still be the case that the vast majority of his "secular" respondents (at least 55%), are in fact religious believers who don't go to services. Moreover, many atheists and agnostics do attend religious services at least occasionally (e.g. - for family or social reasons), and so would not be included in Brooks' "secular" category. Some would even be categorized as "religious." I have an atheist friend who regularly attends religious services with her believer husband. In Brooks' study, she would be considered "religious," even though she denies the existence of God and doesn't believe that the precepts of her husband's religion (or any religion) are actually true.

Why would believers who attend services be happier than those who never do? There are many possible reasons, and some of the most plausible ones do not apply with equal force to nonattendance by atheists and agnostics. For example, attendance at religious services is a social activity. We know from a great deal of social science evidence that people who build up "social capital" by participating in social and community activities tend to be happier than those who do. Understandably, religious people with high social capital will tend to participate in religiously-oriented groups. Equally understandably, atheists and agnostics will tend to focus on secular ones. For a religious believer, never attending services is a strong indication of low participation in social activities more generally. For an atheist or agnostic, it might just be an indication that he participates in secular activities instead.

Similarly, many religious people believe that they have a duty to attend services. Those who believe they have such a duty but never live up to it may well be down on themselves for what they perceive to be their own immoral conduct. Almost by definition, atheists and agnostics do not believe they have any moral duty to attend religious services. So they are extremely unlikely to engage in self-recrimination for failing to do so.

III. Limitations of the Argument.

It's important to be clear about the limitations of my argument. I'm not saying that the evidence shows that atheists are happier than religious believers. I'm not even saying Brooks' hypothesis that religious belief makes one happier is provably false. All I'm suggesting is that the evidence he presents doesn't substantiate it.

I'm also not suggesting that the lack of a connection between religious belief and happiness proves that religion is false. The validity of belief in God is independent of whether nor not such belief makes people happy. The same is true for the validity of atheism. I am an atheist because I think logic and evidence support the conclusion that God doesn't exist, not because I think that being an atheist will make me happy.

In fact, it's perfectly possible for belief in imaginary beings to increase happiness. For example, many children are probably happier because of their belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. When they learn the truth, they tend to be disappointed, and their level of happiness declines (at least for a time). By contrast, belief in real beings is sometimes more unpleasant than blissful ignorance of their existence. For example, many Americans might be happier if they didn't know about Osama Bin Laden and therefore didn't have to worry about the threat he poses. The truth may set you free. But it won't always make you happy.

UPDATE: In his article linked above, Brooks also notes that "people who pray every day are a third likelier to be very happy than those who never pray, whether or not they attend services." To my mind, this means of measuring religiosity is not sufficiently distinct from attending services. Like attendance at services, regular prayer is also often a social activity (e.g. - many people do it with their families and friends), and is thus likely to be correlated with "social capital." Similarly, many of those who say they "never" pray are likely to be religious believers rather than atheists or agnostics. They may simply belong to religions that don't require prayer; or they doubt its effectiveness despite belonging to denominations that hold otherwise. Thus, Brooks' use of the prayer variable likely proves only that religious people who pray regularly tend to be happie than those religious people who don't. Brooks himself offers a plausible explanation for this result when he notes (in a different context) that "what makes some religious people unhappy is an image of God as severe, unloving or distant . . . regular churchgoers who feel 'very close to God' are 27% more likely to be very happy than churchgoers who do not feel very close to God." If you are religious and believe that God is likely to answer your prayers, that may well make you happier than you would be if you believed in God but thought that he is - in Brooks' words - "severe, unloving, or distant." But that fact says little about the effects on happiness of not believing in God at all.

Does Religious Belief Increase Charitable Giving?

Last week, I criticized claims that religious belief increases happiness. I pointed out that these claims are based on data that don't actually compare religious believers with atheists and agnostics. Instead, they are based on comparisons between churchgoers and non-churchgoers, and people who pray regularly with those who don't. At most, such comparisons show that religious believers who attend services and/or pray regularly are happier than religious believers who don't. They say nothing about differences between religious believers and nonbelievers. In addition, the argument in question conflated correlation with causation.

This week, columnist Mary Eberstadt uses the same data (collected by Albert Brooks) to argue that religious belief increases charitable donations and volunteering:

This one's by econo-brain Arthur C. Brooks and is called Who Really Cares: America's Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why it Matters. Geeking over what he calls "the fruit of years of analysis on the best national and international datasets available on charity, lots of computational horsepower, and the past work of dozens of scholars who have looked at various bits and pieces of the charity puzzle," numbers nerd Brooks shows beyond a doubt one fact that our Side should not want out — i.e., that American believers are more "generous" in every sense than the enlightened likes of Us.

Brooks says that religious people give more to charity than non-religious people — in fact, much more: "an enormous charity gap," he reports, "remains between religious and secular people."

To see this, imagine two women who are both forty-five years old, white, married, have an annual household income of $50,000, and attended about a year of college. The only difference between them is that one goes to church every week, but the other never does. The churchgoing woman will be 21 percentage points more likely to make a charitable gift of money during the year than the non-churchgoer, and she will also be 26 points more likely to volunteer. Furthermore, she will tend to give $1,383 more per year to charity, and to volunteer on 6.4 more occasions.

Brooks goes on to test the charity gap up, down, and sideways. The results are always the same:

"People who pray every day (whether or not they go to church) are 30 percentage points more likely to give money to charity than people who never pray (83 to 53 percent). And people saying they devote a 'great deal of effort' to their spiritual lives are 42 points more likely to give than those devoting 'no effort' (88 to 46 percent). Even a belief in beliefs themselves is associated with charity. People who say that 'beliefs don't matter as long as you're a good person' are dramatically less likely to give charitably (69 to 86 percent) and to volunteer (32 to 51 percent) than people who think that beliefs do matter."

The flaws in this argument are exactly the same as those I pointed out in the claim that Brooks' data shows that religious belief increases happiness: the analysis doesn't actually compare religious believers and atheists or agnostics. It compares religious believers with different levels of observance. For reasons I noted in my earlier post, the vast majority of Brooks' respondents who say they never pray or go to church are still religious believers. It stands to reason that people with less commitment to their ethical beliefs (as indicated by lower attendance at services, or failure to devote "a great deal of effort" to them) are less likely to contribute to charity based on those beliefs. A religious person who doesn't go to services or pray probably has less commitment to his belifs than one who does, and this may be reflected in their level of charitable giving. The same cannot be said of an atheist or agnostic who doesn't go to services or pray. They simply have a different set of ethical beliefs, one that doesn't require attendance at religious services, but may still require charitable donations, volunteering, and so on.

Some of Brooks' comparisons are even less relevant to to the religious-secular comparison than his data on church attendance. For example, you can disbelieve in God, yet still devote "a great deal of effort" to your "spiritual life," especially given the broad, amorphous definition of what counts as "spiritual" in today's popular culture. Similarly, it is perfectly possible to think that "beliefs" matter a great deal, yet also be nonreligious. Indeed, some of the most strongly committed atheists - people like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, who think that nearly all religion is evil - would surely say, in a survey, that "beliefs" matter a great deal.

Finally, it's worth noting that even if Brooks and others can show a correlation between religious belief and giving, that doesn't necessarily prove causation. If believers do indeed give more than atheists and agnostics, it may be because of variables exogenous to religious belief that are correlated with it.

As in the previous post on this subject, I note two caveats. First, I am not claiming that I have proven the opposite of Brooks' and Eberstadt's argument: that religion doesn't increase charitable giving. I merely point out that they haven't proven their own case with the data they rely on. As far as I know, we don't yet have a truly reliable comparison of charitable giving by atheists and agnostics on the one hand and religious believers on the other. This gap in the literature represents an opportunity for enterprising scholars.

Second, the validity of religious belief and of atheism don't depend on their effects on charitable giving. Religion could be true, yet fail to stimulate charity. It could also be false and yet increase giving.