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What can opinion polls tell us about well-being and revolution? Quite a lot, actually

October 15, 2012
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I’m on a plane to Delhi today, to the big OECD conference on ‘Measuring Well-Being for Development and PolicyDelhi logo Making’. In preparation, I dropped in on the scarily smart (in both senses) young pollsters from Gallup. Fascinating, and also vaguely relevant to today’s ‘blog action day‘, on the theme of  ‘the power of we’ – few organizations are better placed than Gallup to tell us what ‘we’ actually think.

Gallup is moving increasingly into working in developing countries, picking up on issues like food security and water and sanitation.

But it was their work on well-being that really got my interest. Since 2005, they have been developing their wellbeing survey methodology, and now run it annually in 161 countries. They divide up the poll questions into two bunches:

Evaluative: Evaluate your life on a scale from 0 to 10 today. Where do you think you will be about 5 years from now?

Experiential: how did you feel yesterday? (well-rested; treated with respect; smile or laugh a lot; learn or do something interesting) What about negative feelings? (physical pain; worry; sadness; stress; anger)

That produces a well-being snapshot across a lot of people (something like 200,000 in the last poll), and the results are a real mix of the expected (Greece and Spain top the list of most worried nations) and the unexpected.

In which latter category I would put their findings on gender and well-being. Globally, women say they have roughly the same degree of life satisfaction as men. The best countries to be a woman (i.e. those where women are most likely to say they are ‘thriving’) are Denmark, Canada and Australia. The worst are Afghanistan, Nepal and Madagascar.

So far, so unsurprising. But when we get onto gender gaps, it gets much more interesting. The biggest gender gap, in terms of men reporting more positively than women are in Ukraine and Vietnam. The list of countries where women are significantly more positive about their lives than men is led by Qatar, Angola, South Korea and Iran.

cartoon-west-vs-eastIf you’re skimming, read that list again. Maybe the cartoonist (left) is onto something? (OK, I’m heading for the bunker right now).

Even more baffling: South Korea has the worst gender pay gap in the world – women earn 38% less than men, and 10% more women say they are thriving than men. Any theories?

Other fascinating findings from the Arab world: Across the Arab world, men’s support for women’s equal legal status and right to hold any job they are qualified for was positively linked to men’s life evaluations, employment, and other measures of economic and social development. Gallup also found that there is no link between men’s support for Sharia as the only source of legislation and antagonism toward equal rights for women.  If the economy continues to suffer, women’s rights may as well. This suggests that economic trouble may be a greater threat to women’s rights than public support for religious legislation.

Now the standard NGO response to reading something ‘counterintuitive’ – i.e. we would rather it wasn’t true – is to question the methodology. But unless you really are an ubergeek, I would strongly advise against taking Gallup on. Like I said, they are scary, as is their readiness to get down and dirty on methodology.

I recommend an idle wander through – a real treasure trove. The Middle East leads the world in negative emotions – but how about Somaliland having the lowest level of negatives (maybe just not being Somalia gives you a boost?)

Finally, as they talked about measuring anger and rage across the world, I asked the obvious question – could you have predicted the Arab Spring? There answer was ‘not yet’ – ‘we know when something is ripe for chaos – you can see Spain and Greece are really brittle right now’. Their polling showed that despite high GDP growth, well-being was ‘plummeting’ in Egypt and Tunisia for some years before the uprising. Hope they don’t manage to crack the predictive thing, or I imagine some rather unsavoury customers will be lining up to buy their services.

Here’s some more links for potential browsers and data geeks, c/o Gallup’s Andy Rzepahappiness v researchers

Income, Health and Wellbeing across the World”, paper by Angus Deaton

Women and Men Worldwide Equally Likely to Be “Thriving”” Lymari Morales and Kyley McGeeney

Gallup WorldView, data visualisation portal

And a footnote from Oxfam wellbeing guru Katherine Trebeck. The Oxfam Humankind Index for Scotland will be broken down by gender next year so we’ll see how women and men compare according to the 18 priorities our consultation revealed (the Scottish Government have promised us access to unpublished data that allows us to do so).


  1. I’ll confine myself to the gender/women’s rights issues you raise. Extrapolating any general point here regarding the gender issues you raise isn’t really possible. Why?
    1. Quatar, Angloa, South Korea and Iran. Four countries with just so much in common for us to make generalised points about the status and condition of women. Not.
    2. The idea that women’s bodies are a battleground and the idea that we are sex objects either covered or uncovered is as old as feminism. It is really unbelievable that this is new to anyone.
    3. Any rigorous and convincing research about wellbeing would be focusing on the difference between perceived and real wellbeing, especially for marginalised groups. If you want me to refer to clever men who people take notice of as a reference for this point, see Amartya Sen’s work from 1990. We have a 14 year old girl arriving in the UK today, for hospital treatment after being shot in the head for standing out about her view that she deserves an education even though she is female. If constraints on your choices are so narrow that you have little chance of success when you challenge them, maybe better to settle for them and say you feel fine. The price of being a social pioneer is very high. Ask her when she recovers.

    1. Thanks Caroline,
      I totally agree on not being able to extrapolate any general conclusion. Did I say otherwise? But it should at least make us pause when, at least for me, I would not have guessed any of these countries would be at the top of this particular gender gap.
      But your point 3 worries me a bit. We’ve been over this ground before. While it’s true that saying ‘whatever people feel/say is a true picture of their lives’ is unreliable because as you say, people form opinions and choices subject to constraints, I am equally uncomfortable with any kind of ‘false consciousness’ argument that dismisses those views too easily when they don’t conform with our own. Slippery slope leading to the echo chamber.
      I won’t respond on Malala Yousufzai, except to say that I don’t like debating in that kind of way (shades of Godwin’s Law)

  2. Thanks Duncan for this.

    On South Korea, does the fact that, among OECD members, it has one of the lowest labour market´s participation rate for women aged 25-64 (below 65%) impacts the stats?

    And it was (is?) common for married women (who tended to stay home raising the children) to be the “financial manager” of the household giving them a certain financial power. And like in Japan, Korean single and working ladies save a lot of their income by continue to stay with their parents. Their income is instead used in whatever they want to buy.

    Married men need to support their families and single men to help their parents….. But Korea is changing fast so my views might be already old ones…

  3. But when we get onto gender gaps, it gets much more interesting. The biggest gender gap, in terms of men reporting more positively than women are in Ukraine and Vietnam. The list of countries where women are significantly more positive about their lives than men is led by Qatar, Angola, South Korea and Iran.

    Two quick thoughts:

    1. I’ve always thought that nature of regime probably biases responses to these sorts of surveys to an extent. IIRC at the end of Afro-barometer polls, when people are asked who they think is behind the poll, despite being told at the beginning that polling is being done for and by an NGO, a significant number say ‘the government’. So I would say it is possible that women are overstating their welfare in Iran and Qatar not because they’re labouring under false conciousness but rather because they’re being cautious in their answers and just what the reveal to who.

    2. Within country gender gaps are interesting but I’d say that, ultimately, the most important ranking exercise is how well women feel vis a vis women in other countries, not vis a vis men in their own.

  4. Like a lot of counter-intuitive facts , it’s maybe not so counter-intuitive when you examine it. I don’t think these women are disatisfied with their lives and secretly hiding it from the researchers. They are content with their particular lives because the alternatives they see around them for a women in their societies are a 1000% times worse

  5. Fascinating figures indeed! But – as Caroline Sweetman says – the survey is all about perceptions, or rather, about what people are ready to share regarding their perceptions. I.e., The response reflects not only (and not necessarily) how people see things – which might already be quite different from how a more “external” observer would see them-, but also (or chiefly) how people think one should talk about one’s perceptions (which causes what is known as the “social desirability bias” in research). That latter element varies enormously depending on the social context / country you’re in. So maybe we don’t need to worry or wonder too much about surveys that show us what people who live in vastly different contexts are ready to answer to the same questions…

  6. The difficulty with statistics such as these is that they abstract ‘the subjective’ from the context of the subjects themselves, so that the producers or consumers of research are left to supply a context or reading which makes sense to them. This is what explains, I think, the very different responses from Duncan and Caroline – they tell us more about Duncan and Caroline than about the people who replied to the Gallup surveys. There is much to be learnt from a focus on wellbeing, which reflects a broad tradition in development of seeking to go beyond the economic and to assert people’s own perspectives and action. It is important, however, that we guard against this new awareness of the subjective and personal being captured by highly quantitative, expert-driven, abstracting and reifying methodologies. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this whole exchange is Duncan’s warning that – unless you are an ‘uber-geek’ – you should not even try to take Gallup on.

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