Skip to content

Are Nobel Laureates Smarter than APA Distinguished Scientist Award Winners?

February 23, 2012

Who doesn’t Bask In Reflected Glory (known, in social psychological circles, as BIRGing), from time to time, by mentioning our connection to others who have succeeded in their pursuits, righted a wrong, or generally done something good?  By the way, did I mention that my advisor at the University of Illinois, Ed Diener, won the American Psychological Association’s highest award last year: The Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. Congratulations, Ed!

Dr. Diener

Dr. Ed Diener, University of Illinois

The news came my way on November 17th, 2011, not long after the Nobel Foundation announced the 2011 winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science. This year’s winners were Thomas J. Sargent of New York University, and Christopher A. Sims of Princeton University. Even if you don’t read the newspaper much, you probably heard about these two economists. The New York Times featured them in multiple stories. So did US Today, Financial Times, and BBC News. The news about the Nobel Prize in Economics was everywhere. I even saw them in my favorite Japanese newspaper, Asahi.

The news of Ed Diener’s accomplishments did not travel so fast or so far.  Entering “Thomas Sargent, Nobel” in Google Search results in 16,600 hits between October 9th and November 8th. “Ed Diener, APA distinguished scientist” yielded 221 hits between November 15th and December 14th. But, the close inspection of Google’s 221 hits showed that the announcement of Ed winning this prestigious award was only made by the University of Illinois’ psychology department website. That is, whereas the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Economics was covered in every media outlet world-wide, the announcement of the APA distinguished scientist award was made only by the department website of Illinois (not even by the News Gazette, the local newspaper in Champaign). The news coverage of these two awards is literally night and day.

So my question is this: Is winning a Nobel Prize in economics more than 16,000 times newsworthy than winning an APA distinguished scientist award? Also more generally, are Nobel Laureate economists really smarter than the winners of APA’s distinguished scientific contribution award? What do you think?

I think that 99.9% of the general public will surely think so. Why? Because the general public believe that Nobel Laureates are geniuses! Nobel Laureates evoke the image of Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, and James Watson. I do think that these economists who won the Nobel are geniuses. But, I happen to think that the APA distinguished scientist award winners (at least some) are in the same genius category as those Nobel Laureates. Let me tell you why.

Between 1969 and 2011, 69 individuals were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science. During the same period, 139 individuals were awarded APA’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. The size of economics and psychology departments are roughly the same (at UVA, there are 31 full-time econ professors vs. 38 full-time psychology professors), though in some universities the econ department is far larger (e.g., Princeton and Harvard econ departments have roughly 60 full-time professors vs. 30 full-time psychology professors). Although there are lots of economists in business schools and government agencies, and elsewhere, there are lots of clinical psychologists everywhere. So, my guess is that the base number of economists and psychologists is roughly a ratio of 1:1 to 2:1. If this assumption is right, then winning the Nobel Prize in Economics is roughly twice to four times as hard as winning the APA’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award-far from 16,000 times in the media coverage.

But, beyond the selection rate (competitiveness), it is also important to look at the impact that APA distinguished scientist award winners and Nobel laureate economists had. After all, the Nobel foundation awards these economists for the lasting impact they made. To get an idea of their impact, I looked at Harzing’s Publish or Perish on February 20, 2012. As you see in the table below, social-personality psychologists who won the distinguished award are comparable, or better than Nobel winning economists in both total citations and h-index (the number of papers, “h” that the author published that have been cited at least “h” times; e.g., an h-index of 20 means this person published 20 papers that are each cited at least 20 times; an h-index of 100 means this person published 100 papers that are each cited at least 100 times).

Data Retrieved on February 20, 2012

Winners of the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award

Year     Name                           # of Papers       Total # of Times Cited  H-Index

2012    Ed Diener                                 360                              52,355                         98

2011    Dan Wegner                             179                              17,172                         53

2011    Carol Dweck                            173                              27,589                         61

2010    Susan Fiske                              310                              31,045                         75

2009    Alice Eagly                               240                              31,913                         65

Winners of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science

Year     Name                           # of Papers       Total # of Times Cited  H-Index

2011    Thomas J. Sargent                    433                              27,116                       70

2011    Christopher A. Sims                 270                             26,026                       55

2010    Peter A. Diamond                     241                              18,380                       48

2010    Dale T. Mortensen                    134                              11,494                        36

2010    Christopher A. Pissarides     135                               13,899                       43

Here is the statistical comparison between the last 5 social-personality psychologists who won the APA distinguished scientist award and the last 5 economists who won the Nobel. In terms of the number of papers published, they are dead even (Mpsychologist = 252.40, SD = 81.76 vs. Meconomist = 242.60, SD = 122.86), t (8) = .15, p = .88. However, in terms of total citations, these psychologists surpass the economists on average by 12,000! Mpsychologist = 32,014.80, SD = 12,792.29 vs. Meconomist = 19,383.00, SD = 7022.20, t (8) = 1.94, p = .09. Furthermore, these psychologists also have a higher h-index than these Nobel Laureates by 20! Mpsychologist = 70.40, SD = 17.34 vs. Meconomist = 50.40, SD = 12.97, t (8) = 2.07, p < .05.

It is hard to compare these numbers across different disciplines, of course. So, I would not take these numbers at the face value. But, it seems that top psychologists are making as much impact as the top economists on social and behavioral sciences. Why wouldn’t New York Times run the headline “Ed Diener, a happiness researcher, wins this year’s APA distinguished scientist award”?

I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day APA distinguished scientists will be able to join hands with Nobel laureate economists. I have a dream that one day the announcement of the APA distinguished scientist award winners will be covered, along side with the announcement of the Nobel prize winners.


Daniel Kahneman, who won both awards (1982 APA, 2002 Nobel) has 363 papers. Total citation is 129,273 (1 digit above the rest). H-index = 91. Wow!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2013 12:56 pm

    What a silly question. The answer (sic) is by definition, necessarily silly as well. Makes me shudder to know I am associated with psychology if this is the type of text that is reflective of thought. Let us hope it is not. Ugh!

  2. February 27, 2012 3:12 am

    It’s not impossible that someone or some organization may initiate a Nobel Prize for Psychology sometime in the future! Nobel for Econ was established 67 years after the original ones founded by Alfred Nobel. So as the science of psychology matures even more…I too have a dream today!
    I always have an impression that psychologists and economists try to emphasize on different aspect of human behavior. Economists often try to predict and steer the market ( they’ll try to include as many variables as possible in a single regression equation so that nothing is omitted, though it too often would not make sense to a psychologist). Psychologists are more fine-tuned and dig deeper into the individual level. It’s good to know that we are not all cold rational beings trying to gain efficiency all the time, but unique individuals dancing in our own model of lifetime.
    The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. The same holds for psychology.

    • April 1, 2012 9:03 pm

      Yes, we should aim for establishing a Nobel Prize for Psychological Science. If the textbook publishers can donate a small portion of their earning out of psychology textbooks every year (I bet it is a billion dollar industry), that might be enough to fund the Nobel in Psychology!

  3. February 24, 2012 5:27 pm

    Yes, Chuck! It is worth noting that there isn’t really a Nobel in Economics either. It was not one of Nobel’s prizes. It was added later, in honor, of him:

    Why couldn’t psychology do the same? All we need is some deep pockets to fund it. I nominate all psychologists with h’s > 90 or times cited > 50,000 to pool their riches. How about it Ed and Danny?

  4. Donelson Forsyth permalink*
    February 24, 2012 4:56 pm

    I realize that the Nobel Prize targets economics by tradition, but that tradition overlooks relative impact of economics and psychology. Economists have been laboring long, trying to understand sources of process and dysfunction economic systems, just as psychologists have explored the sources of well-being, adjustment, and dysfunction. Yet, during this period, one economy has faltered after another, millions have been plunged into poverty, and changes in economic regulations continue to yield unexpected consequences. In contrast, during this same period treatment for those with mental illness has improved dramatically, problems that have plagued the human race for centuries–depression, interpersonal conflict, racism–thought not solved have been have been addressed with increasing success, and overall levels of happiness have increased worldwide. Yet economics celebrates with a Nobel, and psychologists’ achievements are recognized only by other psychologists.

  5. Charles Stangor permalink
    February 23, 2012 3:01 pm


    Super analysis… makes me feel all warm and fuzzy!

    It’s really too bad that there’s no Nobel in psychology. That would be awesome.

    It always seemed to me, from the time when I was first a grad student in the early 1980s, that Tversky and Kahneman realized the problem and framed a lot of their work in economic (as well as psychological) terms to keep them eligible for the Nobel. It was just a hunch I had… and it worked I guess!

    …more hats off to Ed!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: