Tag Archives: capabilities

Best-worst capabilities endorsed

Wow. In this article Will Hutton interviews Amartya Sen. A crucial quote:

“…you have to take in, somehow, the unattractiveness of the last as well as the attractiveness of the first candidate.”


Wow, quantifying the worst as well as the best?

Which group has been at the forefront world-wide of doing this?

Yep, we’ve been way ahead of our time.

happiness redux

There is a piece on happiness at NakedCapitalism.com up today. It is a guest post from VoxEU and unfortunately, though trying to make valid points, falls into the usual holes: the key one is that the data all appear to be Likert-based self-reported happiness scales, which in two major countries (at the very least) have been shown to be deeply misleading (US and Australia). In short, even within these two countries, there are cohort and/or longitudinal effects: the number you state your happiness/life satisfaction to be is heavily dependent upon age (particularly if you are older), independent of (after adjusting for) a huge number of other factors (health, wealth, social empowerment, independence, etc). Moreover this is not “just” the infamous “mid-life dip”: the differences between such measures, and the more comprehensive well-being/quality-of-life ones, are particularly stark in extreme old age and have big implications for retirement age, what resources are needed by the very old etc.

To make comparisons across countries with different cultural backgrounds seems even more hazardous – Likert scales generally were pretty much discredited on such grounds by 2001:

Baumgartner H, Steenkamp J-BEM. Response styles in marketing research: a cross-national investigation. Journal of Marketing Research. 2001;38(2):143-56.

Steenkamp J-BEM, Baumgartner H. Assessing measurement invariance in cross-national consumer research. Journal of Consumer Research. 1998;25(1):78-90.

Five year age bands showing mean levels (after rescaling) of self-rated happiness versus scored quality of life in Bristol

Five year age bands showing mean levels (after rescaling) of self-rated happiness versus scored quality of life in Bristol, UK









The above shows that the ICECAP-O measure (based on discrete choice based outcomes of McFadden, coupled with Capabilities Approach of Sen, both winners of the Economics “Nobel”) tracks happiness (after both rescaled to be on 0-1 scale) reasonably well til middle age. In old age people report suspiciously high life satisfaction/happiness scores even when they have a whole host of problems in their lives. We captured these in the ICECAP-O (collected from the same people who gave us life satisfaction scores), as well as their individual answers to a huge number of questions about these other factors in life. This has been found in the USA too:

US life satisfaction

US life satisfaction








In short, we don’t have a bloody clue what older people are doing when they answer these scales but sure aren’t doing the same thing as younger people.

I discussed further the contribution of trust toward a broad measure of well-being in a talk I gave years ago when in Sydney: in Australia it is basically the case that a lack of trust of those in the local community has a pretty huge (11%) detrimental effect to your quality of life in Sydney but a much smaller, though still significant (5%) effect elsewhere in Australia.

I wish these Likert-based happiness surveys would cease. They really don’t help the field, when much better alternatives are already in routine use.

older aussie well-being

A tweet just alerted me to this report on the well-being of older Australians. I haven’t had time to read in detail but a quick skim seems to indicate it did all the “usual” things of checking correlations, doing PCA, etc and then “The final index was then calculated by averaging the five domain index_log”.


I cannot but help feel a little frustrated. I gave a talk on this subject 6 years ago in Sydney when working at UTS. Many of my top publications from my time in academia concerned the development and Australian usage of the ICECAP-O instrument (see chapter 12) as a measure of the well-being of (primarily but not just) older people. Advantages it has over the research in the report I’ve just read are the following:

  1. ICECAP-O doesn’t use variables that must be collected from official sources or be part of (say) the SEIFA. The five variables came from extensive qualitative work that established what it is about (say) housing uncertainty that really contributes to/takes away from well-being. We wanted the underlying key conceptual attributes of well-being. So whilst health (for instance) is valued, it is what it gives you in terms of independence, security, enjoyment of activities that really matters.
  2. ICECAP-O is an individual-level one A4 page questionnaire. Four response categories per question means 4^5=1024 distinct “states” you could be in, each with its own percentage score. So slice and dice the data in far more flexible, disaggregated ways than what’s out there so far.
  3. The five domains are NOT simply averaged, nor do the response categories across domains be equally valued – e.g. the 2nd to top level of “love and friendship” is more highly valued, on average, than the top level of ANY of the other four other domains. They don’t all matter equally to older people. There is even a fair degree of heterogeneity AMONG older people as to the relative importance of these, heavily driven by factors such as marital status and gender. We used choice models to find this out and the findings are based on robust well-tested theoretical models.
  4. You can compare with (say) the SEIFA – we did this with the UK Index of Multiple Deprivation in one of my papers looking a British city – and get far better insights. So for instance, measures like the IMD/SEIFA can be misleading when they fail to capture measures of social capital or connectedness.

It’s a shame when disciplines don’t talk to one another. Things could move forward a lot more quickly. And as long as we use SEIFA/IMD type measures in policy, we’re going to be directing resources to the wrong people.

what can’t be legitimately separated from how

I and co-authors have a chapter in the just published book “Care at the end of life” edited by Jeff Round. I haven’t had a chance to read most of it yet, but from I’ve seen so far it’s great.

Chris Sampson has a good chapter on the objects we value when examining the end-of-life trajectory. It’s nicely written and parts of it tie in with my series on “where next for discrete choice valuation”, parts one, (which he cites), two, three, but particularly (and too late for the book), four.

The issue concerns a better separation of what we are valuing from how we value it. I came at it from a slightly different angle from Chris, though I sense we’re trying to get people to address the same question. It’s of increasing importance now the ICECAP instruments are becoming more mainstream. I’m often thought of as “the valuation guy” – yet how we valued Capabilities is intimately tied up with how the measures might (or might not) be used, as well as the concepts behind them. When I became aware that the method we used – Case 2 BWS – would not necessarily have given us the same as those from discrete choice experiments, part of me worried…..briefly. But in truth, I honestly think our method is more in tune with the spirit of Sen’s ideas. (Not to mention the fact we seem to be getting similar estimates, though I explain why this is probably so in this instance previously).

I have said quite a bit already in the blogs, but it’s nice to see others also coming at this issue from other directions. Anybody working on developing the Capabilities Approach must remain in close contact with those who are working on valuation methods.

open letter to sen and mcfadden

Dear Professors McFadden and Sen,

I am writing to alert you to a paper in AER last year that makes serious failures in acknowledging:

(1)   your main paradigm-shifting work in discrete choice modelling for which you won the Nobel prize (McFadden) and

(2)   Work that used the work of McFadden to operationalise the Capabilities Approach for which you won the Nobel prize (Sen).

I wish to make it clear that one author of the paper in question has already publicly acknowledged (2) above and given that McFadden’s work is (arguably) “more mainstream” in economics, the failure to acknowledge (1) makes the paper’s errors even more serious – at least, in the eye of economists.

The paper in question is Beyond Happiness and Satisfaction: Toward Well-Being Indices Based on Stated Preference. Daniel J. Benjamin, Miles S. Kimball, Ori Heffetz, and Nichole Szembrot. Am Econ Rev. 2014 Sep; 104(9): 2698–2735.

I mention above that I have already had a recognition by Miles Kimball (who, by reputation, is probably the senior author) of a lack of referencing of the work to operationalise Professor Sen’s Capabilities Approach.

(see attached screenshot of Miles’s recognition of his poor referencing on Twitter)

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 13 12.30





Yet, even if I were to accept “the “Sennian literature being often outside the mainstream economics literature” as a mitigating factor (which I do not), proposing a discrete choice model to elicit public values for elements of well-being is most definitely not “outside mainstream economics”. Of course your work on discrete choice models, Professor McFadden, is entirely “mainstream”.

A friend/colleague of mine working in the “more mainstream” branches of economics considers my shock and annoyance entirely justified – she cannot believe the authors were unaware of the work of the team in which I worked from 2001-2015 to use stated preference discrete choice models to value elements of the Capabilities Approach.

In terms of my reputation, and that of the wider group, I worked with Professor Jordan Louviere for many years and a textbook which we, together with Professor Tony Marley (acknowledged in Professor McFadden’s Nobel lecture) co-author is being published by CUP this month. (Please see my google scholar profile for details of my publications).

I do recognise and respect Professor Sen’s issues with putting numerical values on elements of Capabilities, but the “ICEPOP” team in which I worked has, I would posit, gone the furthest in providing a framework in which the importance of these can be valued, leaving the societal decision rule to be decided separately, by you Professor Sen, or others – please see numerous publications by Professor Joanna Coast and me.

Anyway, our group has been the worldwide leader in marrying your respective approaches in order to value well-being and I consider it insulting, to say the least, that a paper in AER should appear, claiming that crown, when our papers have been available in reputable (and in some cases hardly non-mainstream economics) peer-reviewed journals for a decade.

I make no request of you for further explicit action – I left academia several months ago, partly due to this kind of behaviour. I merely would ask that if further work by these authors or others, “passes by you or your colleagues”, you make them aware that valuing Capabilities using discrete choice models is well-progressed already and that they should be checking the publications of me, and the wider ICEPOP team.

Kind regards



Terry N Flynn MA(Cantab), MSc, PhD
Director, TF Choices LTD

Tel: +44 (0)115 888 0809 (UK); +61 (0)2 8006 0907 (AUS)
Twitter: @tfchoices @tflynnhealth


Copyright Terry N Flynn September 2015

top economists fail basic literature review shock horror

So, via a blog I follow, I learn that four economists have invented how to operationalise valuing well-being using stated preference discrete choice tasks.

One problem with that. They haven’t. We did it – at least, using the “Sennian stated preference approach” they follow, we did – others did so using health-related quality of life even earlier. Over 10 years ago. They either fail an undergraduate literature review or they are simply liars.

So, Daniel Benjamin, Miles Kimball, Ori Heffetz, and Nichole Szenbrot,  which is it?

The article was published in the American Economic Review, that bastion of “wonderful economics that proved so able to predict real life events”.

I shall simply reproduce the comments I made to Mike Norman, who posted the link to it. I left academia – partly because of clowns like these who run the profession. Thus I am under no obligation to go through every single piece of rubbish or already proven stuff they present.

Thurstone (1927) provided the statistical basis of what they propose – Random Utility Theory. If we are looking for an economist who made a real contribution to the field we need look no further than McFadden, the (co) winner of the “Economics Nobel” in 2000 for showing how this could predict demand (the BART in California – BEFORE it was even built!)

However, all the theory was also developed in mathematical psychology in the 1960s by Duncan Luce and Tony Marley (who is still active in the field, and with whom I have the honour of co-authoring).

Using this to elicit the public’s preferences for aspects of well-being (and specifically operationalising Sen’s approach) is NOT new. There are various groups who have been doing it for close to two decades. A lot of the early work limited itself to health-related quality of life, but work to value general well-being, including fully operationalising Sen’s Capabilities Approach, was well underway by 2006 by the group in which I was working. I see no references to that work by these authors. Again, I find it staggering that mainstream economists can get away with such poor reviews of the literature – but again, the literature in which we published all this stuff is literature they don’t consider “worthy”.

I could go through their article point by point demolishing the out of date rubbish they propose (preferences with descriptors such as “somewhat prefer” which have been shown to be rubbish in the marketing and applied economics literature and which are of no use in PREDICTING AN ACTUAL CHOOSE/NOT CHOOSE DECISION) but I now work in industry and have better things to do. My clients would not give their stuff a single glance, let alone a second one.

Some references showing how to do this using methods that have a 90 year pedigree are given below. It is a shame these “proper” economists do not see fit to reference them. And people wonder why I left academia? My first reference is a text-book that includes a chapter detailing work done several years ago demonstrating what they want to do, and with much better methods.

I find it astonishing that mainstream economists are STILL trying to pass off other people’s original work as their own, when it becomes clear their stuff is rubbish.



Best-Worst Scaling: Theory, Methods and Applications (2015). Louviere JJ, Flynn TN, Marley AAJ. Cambridge University Press.

A law of comparative judgment (1927). Thurstone, L. L. Psychological Review 34, 273-286

Conditional logit analysis of qualitative choice behaviour (1974). Frontiers in Econometrics (Zarembka P – ed); 105-142.

Developing attributes for a generic quality of life measure for older people: Preferences or capabilities? (2006) I Grewal, J Lewis, T Flynn, J Brown, J Bond, J Coast. Social science & medicine 62 (8), 1891-1901

Best-worst scaling: What it can do for health care research and how to do it. (2007) TN Flynn, JJ Louviere, TJ Peters, J Coast. Journal of Health Economics 26 (1), 171-189

Probabilistic models of set-dependent and attribute-level best-worst choice (2008). AAJ Marley, TN Flynn, JJ Louviere. Journal of Mathematical Psychology 52 (5), 281-296

Quantifying response shift or adaptation effects in quality of life by synthesising best-worst scaling and discrete choice data (2013). TN Flynn, TJ Peters, J Coast. Journal of choice modelling 6, 34-43

Using discrete choice experiments to understand preferences for quality of life. Variance-scale heterogeneity matters (2010). TN Flynn, JJ Louviere, TJ Peters, J Coast. Social Science & Medicine 70 (12), 1957-1965

Valuing the ICECAP capability index for older people (2008). J Coast, TN Flynn, L Natarajan, K Sproston, J Lewis, JJ Louviere. Social Science & Medicine 67 (5), 874-882

Developing attributes for a generic quality of life measure for older people: Preferences or capabilities? (2006) I Grewal, J Lewis, T Flynn, J Brown, J Bond, J Coast. Social science & medicine 62 (8), 1891-1901


disability sector survey disappointment

I’ve just tried out the survey promoted by Scope Victoria.

It’s a shame that despite a fair bit of interest expressed in the type of work I do generally (choice modelling) at a disability conference and my work specifically (in valuing social and health care and quality of life in both the UK and Australia), that the powers that be are sticking with old discredited methods.

In particular – there are a whole battery of category rating (visual analogue) scales where you have to give a number from 0 (or 1) to 10 expressing your level of agreement with, or current level experienced of, various aspects of life. I just have two questions:

(1) How are you going to deal with the numerous criticisms of these that Steenkamp and Baumgartner put forward over 10 years ago? Namely culture-specific effects and numerous other biases in how people use these scales (avoid end-points / only use end-points / etc etc)…

(2) How on earth do you hope to summarise how a respondent’s life is overall? You can’t just sum the scores, you have no idea how important they are to the individual since no properly validated task to measure the trade-offs (s)he would be prepared to make between them all was done?

This is simply going to provide a huge textbook of results that will allow service providers and politicians to cherry-pick what they want and concentrate on whatever scores seem to endorse their own views/provision. If you’re going to administer a long survey – and this is VERY long – then you should do a discrete choice experiment to find out what is important to a respondent and what their personal overall disability/quality of life score is.

Then we can track and compare and have a meaningful discussion about disabilitycare and who is being helped or not helped.

lovely wishes

Sent “official” email to collaborators a couple of days ago with my new job details and was touched at so many lovely comments and wishes for the future.

I’ve got to get on to practicalities now – I already had to buy a new suitcase in Singapore on my journey back here to transport back the heavy boots and big coats I bought there…I’ve worn neither on a regular basis since I left the UK 5 years ago. I’m also liaising with various groups of collaborators regarding funding applications. I’m particularly interested in getting European initiatives going – though these are NOT limited just to Europe-based researchers, so don’t want to exclude existing collaborators based elsewhere. The Horizon 2020 initiative has been mentioned to me. So any existing collaborators or ones who would like to participate, please get in contact. I’m interested in getting going projects in any of:
(1) Risky decision-making
(2) End-of-life decision-making
(3) Ethical issues in medicine, particularly cross-country comparisons
(4) Quality of life, particularly anything using the Capabilities Approach of Amartya Sen
(5) Response time models
(6) Agent based models and systems dynamics with DCEs embedded.

So get your thinking caps on, folks!

Happiness economics decimated

Great paper by one of the top Capabilities Approach researchers, Martha Nussbaum – it decimates the fad for happiness economics that infests public policy, particularly in the UK.

Of course, the ICECAP instruments are based on the Capabilities Approach and I have shown empirically (when I get round to publishing it) that ICECAP-O differs from a happiness/life satisfaction score measure in exactly the way Nussbaum predicts.