Eat your broccoli and win a Nobel

Matthew D. Rablen and Andrew J. Oswald have written a very interesting paper comparing the life spans of Nobel Prize winners and individuals who were nominated but didn’t win. (Hat tip to the Economist.) They conclude that winning a Nobel confers about one or two years of extra longevity relative to being merely nominated for one.

The paper is admirably careful. For example, it exploits variation in the amount of purchasing power provided by the Nobel, factoring in cases in which someone wins only a portion of a Nobel, as a way of teasing out the possibility that extra longevity is a result of the money provided by a Nobel. In the end, the paper certainly seems to boost the conclusion that status is important for longevity, and more broadly, that status is something separate from money that people care greatly about.

Nonetheless, there is reason to be skeptical about results like these. Maybe the population of Nobel winners differs from the population of Nobel nominees. Perhaps the Nobel winners had better health than the also-rans, and this allowed them to do extra work that led to the Nobel, or maybe they had more or fewer children, or maybe they were smarter, or maybe they had better home lives, or just had better genes. The problem, of course, is it’s not feasible to control for all of these things, plus the many that one might not think of.

Here’s a suggestion for a study: How does winning a seat in Congress (or any other legislative body) affect longevity? An advantage of this study is that one might be able to exploit random variables that affect the probability of winning independent of the characteristics of the candidate, such as recent economic growth rates at the time of the election. In the second stage of the regression, the dependent variable would be the expected probability of victory given existing conditions exogenous to the candidate. I realize that it’s hard to assemble the data, though.

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2 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    I haven’t read the piece yet, but it is consonant with a growing public health literature on the negative effects of growing inequality on the health of those “at the bottom” (independent of any negative effect low income has on access to health care). We might model the prize as a sudden increase in inequality among some parties who theretofore had been regarded about equal.

    There’s some sociobiological speculation that the increase in inequality causes increased stress hormones in the losers, and these accelerate aging.

    This research could also draw on Robert Frank’s Choosing the Right Pond (about the importance of relative status to happiness), and James English’s The Economy of Prestige (which discusses the paradoxical ways in which efforts to diversify prizes (and thereby more equally distribute status) can be self-defeating.

  2. Paul Gowder says:

    They hardly control for anything and (if I read their tables correctly, which is far from certain) they don’t report correlation coefficients or r-squared or anything else allowing one to judge the actual strength of the effect.