Rating your satisfaction with your life may not be a completely personal decision. See how your satisfaction rating may be influenced by others.
When answering this question, imagine that there is someone in a wheelchair sitting next to you. They will also be answering this question, but you will not have to share your answers with each other.
How satisfied are you with your life in general?
Extremely satisfied 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Not at all satisfied
How do you compare to the people surveyed?
You gave your life satisfaction a rating of 1, which means that you are extremely satisfied with your life. In a study done where people with a disabled person sitting next to them wrote down their life satisfaction on a questionnaire, they gave an average life satisfaction rating of 2.4, which means they were very satisfied with their lives.
What if you'd had to report your well-being to another person instead of writing it down?
In the study, half the people had to report their well-being in an interview with a confederate (a member of the research team who was posing as another participant). When the participants had to report in this way, and the confederate was not disabled, the participants rated their well-being as significantly better than those who reported by writing it on the questionnaire in the presence of a non-disabled confederate (2.0 vs. 3.4, lower score means higher well-being). The scores given when reporting to a disabled confederate elicited a well-being score that was no different than that when completing the questionnaire in the presence of a disabled confederate (2.3 vs. 2.4).
Mean life satisfaction ratings, lower score means higher satisfaction
|Mode of rating well-being||Disabled confederate||Non-disabled Confederate|
What caused the difference in well-being scores?
When making judgments of well-being, people (at least in this study) tend to compare themselves to those around them. This effect is seen more when well-being was reported in an interview than when the score was privately written down, due to self-presentation concerns. A higher rating was given in public so as to appear to be better off than one may truly feel. Note that the effect was only seen in the case where the confederate was not disabled. While well-being ratings were better overall with a disabled confederate, there was no difference between the private and public ratings. Social comparison led to a better well-being judgment, but it appears that the participants were hesitant to rate themselves too highly in front of the disabled person for fear of making the disabled person feel worse.
Why is this important?
Subjective well-being is a commonly used measure in many areas of research. For example, it is used as one way to look at the effectiveness new surgeries or medications. The above studies show that SWB scores can vary depending on the conditions under which they are given. Someone may give a response of fairly high SWB if they are interviewed before leaving the hospital, surrounded by people more sick than they are. From this, it would appear as though their treatment worked great. But suppose that they are asked to complete a follow-up internet survey a week later. Since they do not have to respond to an actual person face-to-face, and without being surrounded by sick people, they may give a lower rating than previously. Is this because the treatment actually made their SWB worse over the longer term, or simply because a different method was used to get their response? The only way to really know would be to use the same methodology to get all their responses, which might not always be feasible. These are important considerations for researchers to keep in mind when analyzing results of their studies. Are the results they got the true SWB of their participants, or is it an artifact of how the study was done? And is there a way to know which measure is right, or are they both right which would lead to the conclusion that SWB is purely a momentary judgment based on a social context?
For more information see:
Strack F, Schwarz N, Chassein B, Kern D, Wagner D. Salience of comparison standards and the activation of social norms: Consequences for judgements of happiness and their communication. British Journal of Social Psychology. 29:303-314, 1990.