Arnold Kling  

The Faith Trap

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Robin Hanson writes,

It seems we hope a stronger and more benevolent God or State will protect us when feel less able to protect ourselves.

He is reporting on a paper in a psychology journal by Aaron C. Kay with lots of co-authors. A snippet of the abstract:

a cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal control are associated with higher support for governmental control

Tyler Cowen adds a little bit.

Bryan Caplan once posited an "idea trap," in which bad policy ideas caused bad outcomes, causing people to support worse policy ideas, leading to worse outcomes.

Maybe part of this is a "faith trap." The stock market crashes, people feel a loss of personal control, they turn to government, government tries bad New Deal ideas, people lose more personal control, develop more faith in Roosevelt, and so forth.

The fact that so many people remember Roosevelt so fondly in spite of the poor objective performance of the New Deal is consistent with this. He led people to believe that he was in control, and that's what people wanted, regardless of whether his policies did any good.

Which says that when I wrote in my depressive realism essay,

Adapting to the reality of higher energy costs and an excess housing stock requires myriad complex adjustments, some of which may be obvious but many of which are subtle. Chances are, it will take several years to complete the transition. Meanwhile, there is little, if anything, that policymakers can do to hasten that process.

I may or may not have the economics right, but I surely have the politics wrong. If people feel that they are losing control because of rising oil prices, falling home prices, and other things, they want someone who will promise to take charge, regardless of what the person can actually do.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (6 to date)
floccina writes:

Maybe the best we can hope for are politicians who will promise action but who are just lying and so do nothing (Bill Clinton and his anti-international trade speeches comes to mind) but take credit when the problem goes away. BTW Obama is beginning to look like a good liar (ignore my lead economist (Goolsbee?) I am antitrade).

You nailed it. Obama in some ways is approaching the perfect Straussian. Tell the people what they want to hear, give them the policies that will give them what they need (as determined by the best economists and expert consensus in other fields).

BGC writes:

I wish AK hadn't used the term 'Depressive Realism' because it gives currency to a bogus concept.

For a start, depression is nothing to do with realism - it is a whole bunch of different conditions of hugely different severities which happen to share 'sadness' as a symptom (actually, according to DSM, depressed people don't need to be sad but could be anxious, irritable, agitated, feel nothing or indeed experience pretty much any unpleasant emotion - it is a hopelessly vague diagnosis).

But mostly I hate the implication that that only psychiatrists know what is *real* about human life, and that everybody else (except depressed people) are unrealistically optimistic. What pathetic arrogance!

Horatio writes:

Thanks for the link. This is something that I have been thinking about for quite some time. My intuition told me this would be the case when I tried to reconcile European and American views on religion and government. More Americans hold the untenable view that God will make things better, while more Europeans hold the view that government will make things better. Conversely, Americans are more logical on government and Europeans on religion. Americans place their faith in the God of Abraham, while Europeans place their faith in the God of Stalin and Hitler.

I think we get a better deal in the states. Imaginary gods cannot hurt me, but governments have been ruining lives for thousands of years.

Larry writes:

The very presence of religion in history indicates that homo sapiens has a deep-seated need for answers/control.

Are America's fairly consistent pairings of religion with conservatism and government with liberalism the only two possibilities?

I.e., in times of trouble, conservatives had better push religion harder than ever, because the self-reliance message they're most comfortable with doesn't fill the gap.

fundamentalist writes:

I didn't want to pay for the whole article, but the rest of the abstract reads like this:

A 4th experiment (Study 5) showed the converse to be true: A challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to increased illusory perceptions of personal control. In addition, a cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal control are associated with higher support for governmental control (across 67 nations; Study 3). Each study identified theoretically consistent moderators and mediators of these effects. The implications of these results for understanding why a high percentage of the population believes in the existence of God, and why people so often endorse and justify their socio-political systems, are discussed

Experiment #4 says that atheists and libertarians have "illusory perceptions of personal control." I would have to read the whole article, but I wonder what makes the researchers think they can determine whether control is real or illusory?

Geert Hofstede has done a lot of research on uncertainty avoidance, independence, power and how they relate to culture and economics. He finds Americans to be outliers in the world in terms of embracing uncertainty, independence and egalitarianism in terms of political power. Yet Americans are very religious. That doesn't square with this research.

And as for "The implications of these results for understanding why a high percentage of the population believes in the existence of God..." I think they have cause and effect confused. People may feel they have less personal control because they believe in God, or because they live under an authoritarian government.

The researchers used cross-sectional data, and when I learned statistics, I learned that cross-sectional data can't prove cause and effect. Only time series data meets the requirements for proving cause/effect. I think the researchers are projecting their own biases into the results.

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