Too Busy to Pick Up the Phone

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Science  01 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6123, pp. 1012
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6123.1012-d

One version of an adage attributed by some to Yogi Berra is that the difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than in theory. One arena where the existence of such a difference is intuitively plausible is when researchers ask questions of a sample of humans in the general population. Despite extensive prior work in many disciplines, not only on survey design but also on adjusting for the relatively high contemporary rates of nonresponse, Heffetz and Rabin have succeeded in identifying a new and intriguing source of potential bias that affects whether inferences drawn from the sample can be applied more widely. They look at the relation between the number of phone calls required to reach a respondent and the answer to a yes/no question about happiness across a handful of demographic dimensions. Splitting the respondents into above versus below median income, they find that almost 9 out of 10 of the richer people are happy versus about 4 out of 5 of the poorer folk—and that there is no difference between busier (i.e., harder to reach) and not-so-busy respondents. On the other hand, women who are easy to reach are happier than similar men, whereas the opposite is true when comparing men and women who are harder to reach. One final point is that inferences about the population would be very much affected by whether people who could not be reached at all would be assumed to be similar to the average respondent or to the busier ones.

Am. Econ. Rev., in press (2013;

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