I have noticed over the last couple of years, that countries that are ranked high on one list that ranks by a property that is favorable, also rank high on other similar lists. For example on

Finland and Denmark are pretty highly ranked, somewhere around place 10 there is often somewhere Germany. I remember John Oliver saying "Finland is on all the good lists.", so it seems at least I am not the only one with that impression. Now, my questions:

  1. Is my observation somewhat justified or am I falling victim to my own confirmation bias when I see those lists (and ignore those lists that are not fitting into my worldview)?
  2. If that observation is justified: Has it been researched, what the causes are for this phenomenon?

I am not sure if that is the right site to ask this question. If not, please point me to the right one if you can.

  • I don't think the question relates to politics, you shall consider posting on another forum such as sociology. – r13 Apr 13 at 11:20
  • @r13: Thanks for the comment. Would it be okay just to copy the question, or should it be moved? What is the general way of handling this here? – Make42 Apr 13 at 13:41
  • I would copy my question and paste it onto another forum. But seems some people here are quite enjoying your question, so maybe you should leave this posting open. – r13 Apr 13 at 13:58
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    Obesity rate is one statistic that doesn't follow the usual pattern. It confounds countries with good lifestyle habits (Japan) with countries that can't afford excess food (Ethiopia). – dan04 Apr 14 at 2:14
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    If you rank countries by 'good weather' the list will also look very different from any of the lists you linked, probably regardless of how you actually define 'good weather'. – quarague Apr 14 at 8:40

It just happens that scoring high in the indexes you listed - progressive policies, social mobility, education and income equality - all require the same two things:

  • A productive economy which generates a lot of GDP
  • The political will to tap into that GDP through taxation and spend those funds on social politics

So any country which has these two things will have the ability to rank high on all these lists.

Further, there is some causal relation between the metrics measured in those lists mentioned here. A good public education system enables social mobility, and social mobility increases income equality.

But there might still be some confirmation bias in what you consider a "nice list". For example, a neoconservative might consider other "nice lists" like per-capita GDP, countries with low tax rate or military prowess to rate which country they consider "better".

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    I'd be interested in further reading to support the idea that Social Mobility increases income equality. It makes sense that social mobility would be easier if the various layers were more equal, making each layer change easier. But that would seem to be the opposite direction. Income equality increasing social mobility. – Jontia Apr 13 at 13:20
  • I think I am equally conservative and progressive - depending on the topic. But I do understand your comment regarding choosing a "nice list". The pre-capita GDP is not too bad in Denmark or Finland either :-). But both have some serious income tax rate. But I would say that GDP might be measurement of wealth, while tax rate is not an outcome but a (part of a) method to receive an outcome. Military prowess is only interesting for me a measurement for safety/security... and I am not sure if that is a good measurement for safety/security. – Make42 Apr 13 at 13:40
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    A Finn here. Worth noting that although the income tax rate is high, the universities are free (government actual gives financial aids for studying). Also public health care is good so you don't have to spend much extra there either. I guess we would go down in the lists if they took account of the weather in November though... – Simo Kivistö Apr 14 at 8:11
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    @Simo Kivistö: It depends on who's making the list. If you happen to be an avid cross-country skier, Finland's weather would put it close to the top :-) – jamesqf Apr 14 at 16:48
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    @Rugbrød - social mobility is not about status, especially not inheritable kind, it's about economic class. How easy is it is to climb from poverty to being a middle class or upper class. And in countries where education is free, healthcare is free etc. this is much easier. – Davor Apr 15 at 12:56

Is my observation somewhat justified or am I falling victim to my own confirmation bias when I see those lists (and ignore those lists that are not fitting into my worldview)?

This does seem to be the case, because your list almost completely ignores individual, political, and economic freedom, so if we were to take it as a value system, we would prescribe totalitarian communism as the optimal social organization. Here are some indices that measure those types of freedom:


Examples of countries that have high economic equality but...

...no freedom of the press: China, Vietnam, Egypt

...no moral freedom: China, Myanmar, Algeria

Examples of countries that have low economic equality but...

...high moral freedom: Brazil, South Africa

One of your indices is the Good Country Index, which does seem to be partially taking into account personal freedom, but certainly not enough for my taste. For example, it rates China the same as Argentina, but I prefer to live in a country without genocide. It ranks Mexico the same as Egypt, but Egypt is a brutal dictatorship.

Most people would also prefer to live in a country that is prosperous in absolute terms. So all other things being equal, more people would for example prefer to live in the US rather than Kenya, simply because the lifestyle in the US is richer, even though the two countries are comparable in income equality and individual freedom. Last I heard, unemployment in Kenya was something like 50% or more. The US also has better economic freedom than Kenya, e.g., in Kenya it's very difficult to start your own business, and there is a lot of police corruption.

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    I am not saying that all lists are the same, just similar: I checked out the "freedom index" you linked to: Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are again on top - actually all much better than the US (which really isn't doing that great in that index). Again, Germany is slightly behind that and then lower (but still above average) is the US. Which is the same with the other lists... (I have been using Scandinavia, Germany and US and reference points most of the time.) – Make42 Apr 13 at 22:19
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    “if we were to take [health, security, equality, etc.], as a value system, we would prescribe totalitarian communism as the optimal social organization” — really? If totalitarian communism had turned out to be effective for maximising those values, then many more people would still advocate it. The reason it’s so near-unanimously rejected isn’t because everyone’s accepted the intrinsic value of individual freedom, but also because even for those other goals, democratic socialism has a much better track record. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Apr 13 at 23:01
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    Could you explain just what you mean by the term "moral freedom"? – jamesqf Apr 14 at 3:16
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    China has one of the highest income inequalities in the world right now. In 1970 they had a very equal income distribution with everyone being equally poor but that was a long time ago. – quarague Apr 14 at 8:42
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    This answer implies that using the listed measures Scandinavian countries would end up being worse off than the US. But when looking at the referenced indices that does not bear out. Comparing the US to a third world country instead makes it look pretty good though. – Voo Apr 14 at 13:05

Political goods tend to reinforce each other. For example countries with good, free or cheap higher education tend also to have high social mobility. Moreover, an informed citizenry can hold the government to account more effectively. Whilst countries with robust welfare systems tend to do well with the overall health of the population.

Hence countries high on one index tend to also be high on others.



It's mostly because you're looking at lists that measure pretty much the same things. Other lists that measure "niceness" based on different criteria come up with radically different results.

Suicide Rates

For an obvious example, consider suicide rates. Suicide rates give a fairly direct, objective measurement of how many people in that country are severely depressed (and how well their health care system really works when faced with such a challenge). By this measure, Finland and Denmark rank #51 and #89 respectively (note that is looking at suicide rate, so Finland's is the 51st worst in the world). By this measure, the "nicest" countries are Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, and the Bahamas.

Drug Addiction Rates

Another measure would be to look at the number of people who find their life unhappy enough that they prefer to escape from it by using (and getting addicted to) drugs such as opiates. In this respect, Finland ranks #106 and Denmark 26 (and again this is ranking by rate, so it means Denmark has the 26th highest rate of opiate addiction of any country on earth). So by this measure, Finland gets a pretty average rating, and Denmark a pretty lousy rating. The happiest country by this measure is Singapore.

Confounding Factors

Statistics like these need to be considered with care. For example, quite a few countries have laws against even attempting to commit suicide, which most likely leads to under-reporting of suicide in those countries. In other cases, people are likely affected by societal norms, such as people in heavily religious countries being rather less likely to use drugs, even if they're not particularly happy.


Concepts like niceness or happiness are nebulous enough to make them fairly difficult to measure (at best). Nonetheless, effects of peoples' satisfaction with their lives can be measured much more directly than the lists you've looked at even attempt to--and more direct measurements of satisfaction (or lack of it) with life correlate poorly with those you've looked at.




  • You might want to check up on: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder – mmeent Apr 16 at 12:38
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    W.r.t. drug rates, there's a spectrum from full legalisation (it makes no sense to exclude alcohol unless you really are restricting to opiates) to the death penalty. That's going to affect how many people are prepared to try them, and availability. Then you've got things like the massive legal supply of opioid medication in the US, and associated addiction, which goes on to drive illegal habits of the legal source is stopped. – Chris H Apr 16 at 14:14
  • @mmeent: I'm well aware of SAD (intimately so, you might say, having grown up in the great white north myself). And it's certainly true that SAD may well explain part of why those countries aren't as "nice". There may well be other factors outside anybody's control as well. But these claim to be lists of nice countries, not just countries that are trying, but apparently failing at it. – Jerry Coffin Apr 16 at 16:16

What others have said is true, but there's more to it

Many other answers tangentially touch upon what I hope you'll see as the crux of the issue. In particular, Mozibur Ullah got most of what I would say is the cause of the 'consistency' in 'nice country lists': the reinforcement of 'political goods' or more generally, positive feedback loops.

However, the way positive feedback loops are explained can vary widely depending on the theory that you use to understand the issue, or the 'lens' that you use to see the 'consistency' in the 'lists'. Here, I'll show three broad theories of political change. All of them help understand why countries consistently appear in nice lists, but they all differ as to what are the main driving forces.

Violence and Social Orders (North et al. 2009)

This text broadly divides two (among other) types of societies: open access and closed access. These ignore the formal political system (for example, a republic or a voting system), since informal norms can keep a system that should be open access as a closed access.

In closed access societies, relationships are personal. So you have to know the king or the lords below or whoever is below them to get political privileges. And those privileges make people want to remain in those positions, as well as have serfs assure some access to the privileges by abiding by the system's norms. That is, broadly and simply, the political part.

If we turn to the economics of the closed access societies, we see that rents are generally accumulated rather than reinvested. This has to do with the incentives put in place: there is plenty of economic protectionism established by the political system I mentioned already.

On the other hand, open access systems are primarily characterized by their impersonality. It is no longer your personal relationship to those in power that determines, for example, your political rights, but your citizenship. That citizenship is vested broadly in society. It doesn't matter who you are; you have the same rights as everyone else. This is enforced by the monopoly of power, where the army or the police respond to the state.

The state has functionaries, of which the government is elected by people who share values that reinforce open access societies. This means there is political responsiveness, so that public goods like labor protections and social protection come to exist.

As to economics, these societies have free trade. This is part of the incentives that make it so that, rather than accumulating, people reinvest.

The effect of these characteristics is both (1) a series of political freedoms and guarantees that make life less risky and more amenable and (2) economic growth so that squalor is not an existential threat anymore.

While the characterizations of these systems are quite detailed in North et al.'s argument, they do establish three key elements that have to be there so that a transition from one system goes on to another: a rule of law that applies to everyone, impersonal organizations (for example, the EFF rather than Julian Assange—kind of thing), and a military that is under the government's control.

So it is these three things that, within this argument, make it so that open access societies occur. These types of societies, I'd say, constitute the nice characteristics you originally noticed.

Why Nations Fail (Acemoglu y Robinson 2012)

This text similarly argues that there are two types of societies, but this time they're 'inclusive' and 'extractive'. These institutions can be found in political and economic institutions. Inclusive political institutions vest the power of a society broadly, so that people's say is responded by the government. This usually goes along with the provision of a series of public goods that make it possible for everyone to participate not only politically, but economically too. In inclusive economic institutions, there are incentives to invest and innovate, which leads to economic growth.

The relationship between political and economic institutions is both one of strong one-way causation and a positive feedback loop. What I mean is that political institutions cause and are reinforced by economic institutions, a relationship where political institutions are always more important.

So, if there are extractive political institutions, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few who defend for their privileges, this will powerfully affect economic institutions. These economic institutions will also be extractive. This means they set up incentives so that there is, instead of investment and innovation, accumulation and protection. That is why this text predicts that China's growth will be unsustainable unless inclusive political institutions occur.

This feedback loop, based on the Why Nations Fail perspective, answers your question: societies which are consistently in nice lists have inclusive politica

Freedom Rising (Welzel 2013)

This book tackles head-on the view presented in Why Nations Fail, among other texts that claim it is institutions that matter most for societies to transform. Instead, this book argues that it is values that ultimately affect institutions.

Values, on their own part, change because of (1) material conditions, (2) education, and (3) social connectivity. In the past, it was the Cold Water condition that made it so that existential conditions weren't as awful. Cold water (1) reduced viral infections, (2) made water navigation possible, and (3) made crop production easier. However, recently, material conditions 'affect' values less and less, compared to education and social connectivity.

However, even while the world is, at large, becoming more educated and more connected, there is still a lag between countries.

Now, how do values affect institutions? Welzel claims it is through collective mobilization. When people value freedom and equality of opportunity more, they mobilize more, so that the government responds to their requests.

This might seem paradoxical given that people all over the world say they want democracy, but this paradox is dissolved when you ask them what they mean by democracy. Surprisingly, loads of people say democracy means 'punishing criminals severely', 'economic growth', 'having religious leaders', or 'having the military step in when the government fails'.

Even more surprisingly, people's values are tied to the kind of institutions that they have regardless of state repression.

So Welzel's answer to your question would be that those countries that consistently appear in nice lists have people with more emancipatory values. Those values are then articulated through actions that, Welzel claims, create the conditions for more future freedom. And they are also articulated through the government, which creates conditions of equality of opportunity and also for citizens to make use of their freedom, which they value. This system reinforces itself, and it gives you another perspective to the question regarding consistency in nice lists.


Out of these three texts, the common denominator that's relevant to your question is the internal reinforcement of elements within the system and the positive feedback loops that reinforce that system over time. This loop is not so evident in North et al.'s work, but it's critical in Acemoglu and Robinson and in Welzel's argument.

This also addresses your question as to whether 'consistently nice' characteristics have been researched. Indeed, they have. And while I admire your caution, I'd say no, you're not falling prey to confirmation bias. There are indeed lots of nice characteristics that are explained by theories that have self-reinforcing mechanisms, mechanisms that will vary depending on which lens you use to understand the problem


One case: New Zealand usually ranks in the top 10 of things like low corruption, quality of life, personal & financial freedom, ... . And while often not top, is usually close enough to top to overall rank first overall from my understanding of what I can see.

I could suggest that that's because NZ is best :-) - but as a NZer I'd be severely biased.
I suspect the NZ national anthem* may give a guide as to why this is so. Some would disagree vehemently, & this factor seems to be declining by the year. (I imagine that some here may feel that such "reasons" have no place in a political site discussion. I'd begi to differ).
[*Maori first - English starts at 1m12s but the Maori is worth listening to.

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    the NZ national anthem has absolutely nothing to do with economic freedom. It is your severe bias. Many countries have similar national anthems. Also I haven't recited it since high school. – user253751 Apr 14 at 12:34
  • @user253751 As above " ... Some would disagree vehemently .. (... some here may feel that such "reasons" have no place in a political site discussion. I'd beg to differ).-> I'd be genuinely interested in what other countries you felt had a comparable anthem. Genuinely. The depth of the message is interesting. | I was not suggesting that many people recite their anthem regularly - in NZ or elsewhere - but fwiw (moot) it is regularly and publicly both sung and sung along with by many. And a "hard core" listen to it daily (and may join in) with its intent in mind. Relevant? Obviously very moot. – Russell McMahon Apr 15 at 3:40
  • @user253751 An offlist comment on countries with "similar national anthems" would be welcome. My email address is in my profile. I realise that God is well mentioned in other anthems. Few, I think, are so wholly a prayer. – Russell McMahon Apr 15 at 3:51
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    Link-only answer, and the link is to youtube. The comments suggest a religious reason, but the high-scoring countries mentioned are among the most secular in the world, while theocracies compete with North Korea for last place. – MSalters Apr 15 at 8:34
  • @MSalters THe Youtube video is of NZ National Anthem being sung. It's 'religious' to the extent that the anthem is - which is totally. The Maori 1st verse, sung 1st is worth a listen even if you skip the English verses. Plus you get dozens of views of fine NZ landscapes and several live views of the finest Rugby football venue on earth (if you are a NZer :-) ). || – Russell McMahon Apr 15 at 11:11

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