Quantifying children


Jason Collins


February 15, 2012

In the New York Times profile of Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, Motoko Rich writes:

Still, data alone can’t explain everything in life. Before Matilda arrived, Ms. Stevenson reviewed research on children and their effect on adult happiness. “I was really put off by the fact that people with kids were less happy,” she said.

But at their home last month, their delight in their daughter was clear.

Mr. Wolfers has written about the joys of fatherhood: “It’s visceral; it’s real; it’s hormonal and it’s not in our economic models.”

On the back of this profile, some people are suggesting that there are circumstances where we need to throw out the equations. KJ Dell’Antonia writes:

Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers are a relief: finally, academic recognition that not every human action is, or needs to be, rational. Of course our children don’t necessarily repay us for our efforts every minute of every day (witness the laptop shooting father in my last post). But whatever indefinable thing those children do offer (joy, love, purpose) resists quantification.

Are you only rational when you maximise what the economists say you should?

More importantly, much of what children do offer, a vehicle for 50 per cent of your genes, is easily quantifiable. Evolutionary biologists have been quantifying the results of reproduction for a century.

If we accept that “joy, love, purpose” resist quantification, does that intangible joy we feel when we buy a new iPhone mean that we cannot quantify the purchase (consumption) of it? Of course not – the purchase is clearly quantifiable. In the same way, the hard to measure drivers behind our urge to have children do not erase the very real, quantifiable results. And there is a growing science on those urges.

Ultimately, Wolfers identifies the problem when he states, “it’s not in our economic models”. It is time to start putting the biology in.