I’ve been wanting to write something on this a really long time ago but I couldn’t find time to do so. It’s actually about application of the concept of confounders in our daily lives and learning. It is somewhat related to John Kay’s Obliquity, which makes for a nice and easy read (and I highly recommend it to any self-righteous economist who thinks everything in the world is just about getting enough incentives in place). I first learnt about confounders in LSE100 (a course at LSE that I thoroughly enjoyed, raved about and accidentally did well enough at). It was almost common sense to me – of course there are things we cannot observe causing two different things which we could jointly observe, and would thus associate, possibly sometimes fabricating some sort of causation story for. Here’s an example from the Wiki page:
We find that increase in ice-cream consumption is correlated with increase in incidence of drowning and we think that eating ice-cream may cause drowning (or vice versa) when it could be that people eat ice-creams on hot days and those are the days where more people take a dip in the sea or go to beaches and thus we observe more people drowning at the same time.
Perhaps that wasn’t all that convincing because it was an example that is supposed to be obvious. Complexity arises when there are more than one variable involved and maybe when we are using proxies imperfectly. We make such mistakes not only in statistics but just inferences on a daily basis. We do make very smart guesses in our daily lives, such as that a ring on the fourth finger probably indicates the person is married but then of course it depends on whether that ring looks like a wedding band or some plastic accessory. The ring is the indicator and the marriage is its indication. But we obviously know that marriage is not about just the ring; and that aiming to get ourselves a ring doesn’t buy us a marriage. Unfortunately, we sometimes behave this way when looking for a job.
As an Economics student in LSE, it is difficult not to be distracted by the vocal crowd of students who goes to networking receptions of companies from the financial industry – the same people from societies with vested interest in finance, banking, investments, etc. These are the people who may spend more time in interview rooms or assessment centers each week than classrooms or lecture theaters. These people are chasing jobs, or rather, those that gives them the money, prestige, and the external envy or perception of intelligence. Those are the indicators. And they think this indicates happiness or success (think about the last time you imagine you’re in the shoes of some hot-shot banker and say to yourself, ‘how nice it would be to get to drive big cars, buy big houses, don on expensive suits even if it means to be hated by the rest of the economy and insulted by the gutter press’). The joy and the satisfaction honestly is unlikely to come from the work itself for most people. Often, M&A bankers spend months studying potential deals that will not be struck and slides that are made simply goes into archives unseen or examined.
Stephen Ridley’s story is an interesting analogy and many people complain that not all have the kind of talents that he did and would be able to achieve an alternative sort of ‘greatness’. That sort of status associated with success is what people think makes them happy. In other words, money, together with the prestige, social status attributed to the work/job are the indicators, and they are confused with its indications – happiness, success, a good life. When things are laid out these way, we know there are confounders – all those money, status, ‘good’ job are nice things to have and maybe it just seem that people who ‘have it all’ are happy. They’re expected to be, everyone thinks they are happy at least. You might know it when you get there; or you can try and discover the confounders – the little things in life that truly cheers you up. The autonomy over your time, the people you get to hang out with (your true friends, not the cool or rich people you hope to be friends with), the pure excellence in performing your job, learning to love the work you do and seeing the meaning of the things you do. Sure, you can get a high-flying job, then grow to like it, deal with its frustrations and end up being happy. More often than not, if you’re struggling to even get there, it is quite likely it isn’t for you in the first place.
I’ve written a lot on happiness (see here, here and here). We know of the confounders that has been leading us to the wrong things but there are more. A spirit of excellence might bring you a great job that pays well but it is the spirit and keeping on with doing what you like that makes you happy. If someone who doesn’t like the work you do come to establish a relationship between the work itself and the happiness or worst, the pay and the happiness, he’d come to be very disappointed when he tries it himself. Likewise, some people are happy making money, they like the idea of getting good returns by taking risks and they accumulate savings/capital which they use to reinvest (ie. take more risks) and generate greater returns. They are rich and happy but they didn’t derive their happiness from the riches. In the chapter ‘Why the rich isn’t necessarily the most materialistic’ of Obliquity, John Kay points out that rich people usually amassed their wealth not so much because they were working for it but for something else they really believe in and can passionately engage themselves with.
Don’t be misled; I’m not saying that appearances are always deceiving and that you should be cynical about all sorts of indicators; clearly when the GDP per capita of US is higher than that of China, we can trust that US is richer than China, at least financially speaking, and the bucks they’re getting from the output their produce (however worthless they might be in your opinion). But that does not necessarily suggests the people in US are living better lives and further inferences about happiness cannot be drawn. So spend some of your life finding confounders and establishing a more reliable relationship between the variables of your life and what your objectives really are – then shut out the noise.