An Introduction to the Relationship between Inequality and Health
In 2001, a reputable scientific journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, published an article with a sensational result: actors who have ever won an Oscar live four years longer than other actors (Redelmeier and Singh, 2001). The article built on many observations structured such that winners were compared with other actors of the same gender, age and who had acted in the same movie. The result was statistically significant, and the positive effect on longevity of four years was large. Besides Oscar glory, living for four more years because of an elevation in status is not a bad reward. This finding was quickly acknowledged and offered as an example of how our tendency to compare ourselves with others affects our well-being. There is only one problem: the result later turned out to be flawed. The researchers had made the relatively simple methodological error of comparing the longevity of Oscar winners without considering the fact that these actors were relatively old when they were honoured and were therefore even more likely to reach an older age. A statistician would say that life expectancy for someone who is alive, for example, at age 60 is higher than their life expectancy at birth. This methodological mistake gave the Oscar winners an unfair advantage in the comparison, and when other researchers accounted for this age effect, the positive effect of status on health disappeared. Despite the invalidation of this finding, it remains a common reference, particularly in media but also in scientific work.
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