The Set Point Theory of Well-Being Has Serious Flaws: On the Eve of a Scientific Revolution?

Abstract

Set-point theory is the main research paradigm in the field of subjective well-being (SWB). It has been extended and refined for 30 years to take in new results. The central plank of the theory is that adult set-points do not change, except temporarily in the face of major life events. There was always some ‘discordant data’, including evidence that some events are so tragic (e.g. the death of one’s child) that people never regain their set-point. It was possible to dismiss these events as ‘exceptions’ and maintain the theory. However, several new findings are emerging, which cannot be dismissed as ‘exceptions’ and which appear to require substantial revisions or replacement of set-point theory. Many of these findings are based on the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP 1984-), which provides the longest available time series on life satisfaction. Despite its centrality, the concept of the set-point is often not precisely defined. In this paper three alternative working definitions are offered. Depending on which definition is used, it is found that over 20 years 14–30% of German panel members recorded large and apparently permanent changes in their set-points. Changes of this magnitude are not compatible with set-point theory as currently understood. The challenge for SWB researchers now is to develop a theory which can account for change as well as stability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Magnus et al. (1993) replicated Headey and Wearing’s (1989) results and confirmed that personality affects reports of relatively objective events (e.g. got married, became unemployed) and not just events which could be a matter of selective perception.

  2. 2.

    This causation has always been open to dispute. People who separate and remain separated, or who are always single, almost certainly have different ‘starting’ characteristics and tastes from people who remain married.

  3. 3.

    Their N was just 29.

  4. 4.

    This point is noted by Lykken (2000) but has been ignored by many other investigators in their commentaries on set-point theory.

  5. 5.

    Like some other researchers we prefer not to use the 1984 data on life satisfaction. It has been shown that life satisfaction scores were ‘inflated’ that year by respondents giving their first interview (Frijters et al. 2004). We will also not use 2005 life satisfaction data due to the risk of correlations with the personality traits of E and N being inflated by contemporaneous measurement. For example, there is some risk that the correlation between E and life satisfaction in 2005 would be inflated by contemporaneous measurement.

  6. 6.

    Ten items were included in 1990 and 1995 and then nine in 2004. The item dropped in 2004 related to the importance of having a wide circle of friends, which loaded on the altruism factor.

  7. 7.

    The presence of statistically significant time invariant omitted factors—and hence the need to include them in predictions of Life Satisfaction1985-1989—is inferred from repeated errors in predicting the annual life satisfaction of panel members. The final estimate of Life Satisfaction1985-1989 for each individual was the sum of the effects of NEO-AC + plus the effects of standard demographic variables (gender, age etc.) + the effects of omitted time invariant factors.

  8. 8.

    Note that the year preceding the relevant 5-year period is included.

  9. 9.

    These standard deviations refer to 5-year averages of the life satisfaction scale. One year standard deviations are around 1.7–1.8.

  10. 10.

    These designations are admittedly not precise. Some people could perhaps pursue career success and material goals in a non-competitive way, and others might pursue (say) family goals in a competitive zero sum manner.

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Correspondence to Bruce Headey.

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I would like to thank Gert G. Wagner, Director of the German Socio-Economic Panel at the German Institute for Economic Research, and Alex Wearing, my long term collaborator, for discussions and suggestions on which this paper is partly based.

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Headey, B. The Set Point Theory of Well-Being Has Serious Flaws: On the Eve of a Scientific Revolution?. Soc Indic Res 97, 7–21 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-009-9559-x

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Keywords

  • Set-point theory
  • Scientific paradigm
  • Subjective well-being
  • Stability and change