Health and Status

A number of studies have shown a startling connection between higher social status and better health, even after controlling for income, education and other factors. Some economists are skeptical, Angus Deaton, for example, suggests reverse causality may be a factor:

The major reason that people retire from the work force is that they’re sick. If you get sick in America, it does terrible things to your social status.

Two remarkable papers by Donald Redelmeier and Sheldon Singh cast some doubt on this explanation. In Survival in Academy Award-Winning Actors and Actresses Redelmeier and Singh compare the longevity of Oscar winners with nominees who did not win. The statistical hypothesis is that all that separates winners and nominees is the random fact of winning (random with respect to other factors influencing health). If winners and nominees are alike but for random factors then any differences in longevity can be causally ascribed to winning the Oscar. R and S find that winners live about 4 years longer than non-winners, a huge difference. The effect does not go away with additional controls.

Skeptics will posit other mechanisms but R and S have a lesser known but equally important paper on screenwriters who win the Academy Award. Surprisingly, they find that winning screenwriters die about 3 years earlier than non-winning nominees. At first, these two results appear to be quite contradictory suggesting some problem in the studies. But on second look there is a compelling logic to the findings. The difference between actors who win the Oscar and screenwriters is that even winning screenwriters get no respect. Who remembers a screenwriter’s name? I think it’s in the movie Bowfinger that Steve Martin says of the lovely ingenue something to the effect, “She’s so dumb she’s sleeping with the screenwriter to get to the top.” Winning screenwriters have longer and more successful careers (4 star movies) than non-winning writers so income and other material factors would suggest greater longevity but even a winning screenwriter is almost surely destined to have his lines mangled by a lousy but famous actor and perhaps this stress drives them to an early grave.