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Not getting the Nobel Prize reduces your expected lifespan by two years

Andrew Oswald (see here and here) sends in this paper. Here’s the abstract:

It has been known for centuries that the rich and famous have longer lives than the poor and ordinary. Causality, however, remains trenchantly debated. The ideal experiment would be one in which status and money could somehow be dropped upon a sub-sample of individuals while those in a control group received neither. This paper attempts to formulate a test in that spirit. It collects 19th-century birth data on science Nobel Prize winners and nominees. Using a variety of corrections for potential biases, the paper concludes that winning the Nobel Prize, rather than merely being nominated, is associated with between 1 and 2 years of extra longevity. Greater wealth, as measured by the real value of the Prize, does not seem to affect lifespan.

The natural worry here is a selection bias, in which people who die at age X are less likely to receive the prize (for example, if you die at age 60, but you would have received the prize had you lived past age 62). The authors address this using a survival-analysis approach to condition on the age at which the relevant scientists are nominated for or receive the prize.

Two years is a large effect, but at the same time I could imagine this difference occurring from some sort of statistical artifact, so I would’t call such a study conclusive, but it adds to the literature on status, health, and longevity.

Explanation of the above title to this blog entry

Thinking more about the particular case of Nobel Prizes, I’ve long thought that the pain of not receiving the prize is far greater, on average, than the joy of receiving it. Feeling like you deserve the prize, then not getting it year after year . . . that can be frustrating, I’d think. Sort of like waiting for that promotion that never comes. Getting it, on the other hand, I’m sure is nice, but so many more eligible people don’t get it than do (and the No comes year after year). I’d guess that it’s a net reducer of scientists’ lifespans.

4 Comments

  1. chris says:

    hmmm. good point — not being eligible for the prize might be beneficial after all. i'd best rethink my campaign for a nobel prize for sociology and criminology.

  2. I know a Staford economist, who told me ruefully, what does it feel like, when several students get their Nobels…

    Well, it was A. Alchian, a very eminent figure.

  3. Kaiser says:

    I object to the suggestion that his ex-post bias-adjusted analysis can be viewed in the same "spirit" as a true experiment. We all know it is impractical to "drop status" on people like we can't randomly assign smokers and non-smokers so why bother with the standard of a true experiment?

    To take your point a bit further, longevity awaits those who don't have a chance of getting nominated for the Nobel, and therefore can't get worked up year after year.

  4. Mike says:

    Sure, repeatedly failing to win the Nobel could wear one down after a while. On the other hand, I can just as easily see them saying "If I could just hold on for one more year…"