Adaptive preferences and capabilities: Some preliminary conceptual explorations

Miriam Teschl, Flavio Comim

Research output: Indexed journal article Reviewpeer-review

144 Citations (Scopus)


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 wellbeing 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-247
Number of pages19
JournalReview of Social Economy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptation
  • Capabilities
  • Functionings
  • Objective happiness
  • Subjective well-being


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