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Adaptive Preferences and Capabilities: Some Preliminary Conceptual Explorations


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  • Miriam Teschl
  • Flavio Comim


The Capability Approach (CA) as developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, has in part been a response to the problem of adaptive preferences. Their argument says that people might adapt to certain unfavorable circumstances and any self-evaluation in terms of satisfaction or happiness will in this case necessarily be distorted. To evaluate people's well-being in terms of functionings and capabilities guarantees a more objective picture of people's life. Next to this strong criticism on subjective measurements of well-being, we observe an increasing interest in Subjective Well-Being (SWB) or Happiness studies that are included in the broader field of Hedonic Psychology. In this paper, we thus revise the original critique of adaptive preferences and compare it with a more detailed analysis of adaptation as it is presented in hedonic psychology. It becomes clear that adaptation can be a positive as well as a negative phenomenon and that the adaptive preference critique had a particular narrow view on adaptation. However, this does not mean SWB-research is not any longer susceptible to this critique. An alternative way to assess people's subjective well-being, but which could be considered to be more in line with the CA, is proposed by Daniel Kahneman's Objective Happiness. These are all relatively new considerations, especially in economics. Therefore much more research needs to be done on the positive and negative aspects of adaptation to understand its consequences on well-being - especially when evaluated within the capability-space.

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Article provided by Taylor & Francis Journals in its journal Review of Social Economy.

Volume (Year): 63 (2005)
Issue (Month): 2 ()
Pages: 229-247

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Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:63:y:2005:i:2:p:229-247

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Keywords: functionings; capabilities; adaptation; subjective well-being; objective happiness;


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  1. Bruno S. Frey & Alois Stutzer, . "What can Economists Learn from Happiness Research?," IEW - Working Papers 080, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
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Cited by:
  1. Gasper, Des, 2007. "What is the capability approach?: Its core, rationale, partners and dangers," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 36(3), pages 335-359, June.
  2. Nicolai Suppa, 2012. "Does Capability Deprivation Hurt? – Evidence from German Panel Data," Ruhr Economic Papers 0359, Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Universität Dortmund, Universität Duisburg-Essen.
  3. Gries,Thomas & Naudé, Wim, 2010. "Entrepreneurship and Human Development: A Capability Approach," Working Paper Series wp2010-68, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
  4. David A. Clark, 2007. "Adaptation, Poverty and Well-Being: Some Issues and Observations with Special Reference to the Capability Approach and Development Studies," Economics Series Working Papers GPRG-WPS-081, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
  5. Tania Burchardt & Polly Vizard, 2007. "Definition of equality and framework for measurement: final recommendations of the equalities review steering group on measurement," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 6218, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  6. Tania Burchardt & Polly Vizard, 2007. "Definition of equality and framework for measurement: Final Recommendations of the Equalities Review Steering Group on Measurement," CASE Papers /120, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.
  7. David Alexander Clark, 2011. "Adaptation and development: issues, evidence and policy relevance," Brooks World Poverty Institute Working Paper Series 15911, BWPI, The University of Manchester.


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