Bryan Caplan  

Why Are the Agreeable Anti-Market?

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Robert McNamara ... Statistical Significance, Agai...
Once you grant that personality has an important effect on ideology, it's only natural to wonder why.  Gerber et al propose what they describe as "two tentative and equally plausible possibilities here, one focused on other regarding judgments and the other focusing on self-interested behavior."

Possibility #1: Some personalities are less self-interested than others.  Their example:
One of the key components of Agreeableness is compassion, as opposed to competitiveness. Individuals who are particularly Agreeable may be more inclined to support policies that benefit others, while less agreeable individuals are unwilling to support interventions that do not improve their material self interest.
Possibility #2: Some personalities have different interests than others.  Their example:
[W]e might expect people who are low on Emotional Stability to be particularly worried about the possibility that they will lose their health insurance and thus may be more inclined to support a government-sponsored program.
Here's my question: What's wrong with...

Possibility #3: Some personalities see the world more clearly than others.

My example:
People high in Agreeableness are emotional and refuse to face the reality of trade-offs.  So when someone suggests that the minimum wage might actually hurt the poor by causing unemployment, they just get hysterical.  People low in Agreeableness, in contrast, are logical and eager to identify trade-offs.  So when you ask them about the disemployment effect of the minimum wage, they calmly consider the argument, and realize that it makes sense.
Now you might think that I'm unfairly maligning the Agreeable as a pack of mushheads.  But whose maligning whom?  On Jungian personality tests like Myers-Briggs , they don't call it "Agreeableness."  They call it "Thinking vs. Feeling."  As a person at the 99th percentile of the Thinking distribution, I see the "Agreeableness" label as a conspiracy of the Feeling to condemn me for my truth-seeking disposition.  Seriously.

In any case, doesn't it stand to reason that Thinking people would be more likely to embrace the "economic way of thinking" and hence pro-market views?  As I explain in my article "The Gender Gap of Economics: Why Do Men Think More Like Economists?":

One of the main dimensions on the Myers-Briggs personality test is Thinking versus Feeling.  The breakdown for men is about 60% Thinking, 40% Feeling; the breakdown for women is about 30% Thinking, 70% Feeling. (Briggs Myers and Myers 1993)  Similarly, in the Five Factor Model of personality, women are about half a standard deviation more Agreeable than men. (Costa et al 2001; Costa and McCrae 1992: 75)  This indicates, in part, that women are more "moved by others' needs and emphasize the human side of social policies," whereas men are more likely to "consider themselves realists who make hard decisions based on cold logic." (Piedmont 1998: 90)    So when economists argue - as they often do - that good intentions have bad unintended consequences, and vice versa, we should expect it to alienate the Agreeable/Feeling, and pique the curiosity of the Disagreeable/Thinking.

Admittedly, I can't prove that my Possibility #3 is right.  But doesn't it deserve as much consideration as Gerber et al's "two tentative and equally plausible possibilities"?  Whoever said that all personalities have equally accurate beliefs?


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The author at RSSted Development in a related article titled Feelings are dumb writes:
    Bryan Caplan has a great post about the relation nice people and anti-market sentiments. He calls the agreeable people “feeling” (i.e. not “thinking”) and says this: As a person at the 99th percentile of the Thinking distributio... [Tracked on July 8, 2009 1:56 AM]
COMMENTS (26 to date)
8 writes:

Another argument against universal suffrage?

Peter Twieg writes:

The more I read, the more I'm inclined to sardonically label the intersections of personality psychology and social science as the science of ad hominem attacks.

Which doesn't mean that the research isn't useful, just that it seems to be leveraged in an amusing manner.

Tom writes:

"As a person at the 99th percentile of the Thinking distribution, I see the 'Agreeableness' label as a conspiracy of the Feeling to condemn me for my truth-seeking disposition. Seriously."
It's nice to know I'm not the only one who suspects this.

Constant writes:

Possibilities 1 and 2 make assumptions about reality which are not shared by everyone. Possibility 1 assumes that anti-market policies benefit others more than pro-market policies. Possibility 2 assumes that government provision is more secure and stable than private provision.

These assumptions are false, I think. Since they are false, then Possibilities 1 and 2 cannot be correct explanations, at least not without the additional assumption that anti-market advocates are deluded. Once we assume they are deluded, then it may be the case that their concern for others leads them to be anti-market, and so Possibility 1 (for example) may be true.

But notice that once we assume that anti-market advocates are deluded, we don't even need to go one step further to explain their anti-market advocacy. Possibilities 1 and 2 become superfluous explanations for a phenomenon that is already explained (as delusion).

Meanwhile Possibility 3 describes the reason for the delusion of anti-market advocates.

Paul writes:

I would also add that "emotional stability" or "neuroticism" in these tests leads to the same conclusion. Those emotional unstable or more "neurotic" (in the sense of the test) also refuse to acknowledge the arguments and often the truth and instead want their feelings to be considered.

They are simple speaking easily frightened. It seems logical, that these people prefer more seemingly stable government intervention, to provide external stability. Pro-markt types might be more stable and less neurotic and so have considerably less need for external stability and protection.

Sounds harsh but my experience is, that economic liberals (the real ones, free-market, thats what they are still called in Europe) are often well adjusted compared to lefts or statists. But thats just my personal judgement.

Alex J. writes:

The more extraverted a person is the more optimistic he would be about getting what he wants through politics. Introverted people, like me, appreciate being able to get what we want through the market without having to lean on personal relationships.

John Alcorn writes:

Bryan, After Arnold's cogent discussion of statistical significance (blogpost 6 July), why would anyone (in this context) "grant that personality has an important effect on ideology"? - John

Kurbla writes:

Compassionate people focus on the bottom of the society, and market doesn't work great there. Compare USA with, say, Cuba: USA has more homeless, crime, prisoners, unemployed, infant mortality at 10 times higher GDP/cap. Sure, USA has many advantages: technology, industry, agriculture, entertainment, science, living standard; but, advantages are not at the bottom.

Robert Scarth writes:

This is an interesting post. The idea that personality affects ideology is one I have found intuitively appealing for a long time. For the moment put aside the question of whether the evidence supports this or not. I think the possible explanations in the post could be made more systematic. I think there are four steps to acting politically:
1) What are your interests / what is the kind of society do you want to live in?
2) To what extent can you correctly identify your interests?
3) To what extent can you correctly identify the actions needed to bring them closer?
4) To what extent can you act in the way identified in 3?

Each of these could potentially be affected by personality.

My 1 is similar to possibility #2 in the post. However I have something in mind more like: introverted people are more likely to favour a society that favours independent action, whereas extroverts are more likely to favour a society with more collective action. This would lead extroverts to trade-off more individual freedom for more (coercively) collectively provided goods and services.

I don't think 2 has been mentioned yet. What I have in mind is something like: introverts "really" (and what does that mean?) need more social interaction, and therefore more collective action, but their introversion leads them to the mistaken belief that what they want is more independence. Perhaps a more plausible example would be an individual who believes in and supports a policy that is not in their interests out of a sense of group or personal loyalty.

My 3 is the same as Bryan's possibility #3. One possible hypothesis here is that those governed more by emotion than reason are less capable of correctly identifying the actions needed to bring society closer to their desired state. (Isn't that actually a tautology?)

I don't think 4 has been mentioned yet. What I have in mind is something like: someone comes (correctly) to the conclusion that one way to bring society closer to their desired state is to support the death penalty, however their emotional response to this leaves them unable to admit to this conclusion, or to speak or vote in its favour. Or for another example consider a homosexual c.1960 - they might have internally come to the conclusion that homosexual sex should be legal, and that they should be open about their sexuality, but because they are shy and introverted they do not do so.

Carleton writes:

There is a big five personality test application on facebook. After one takes it the application also lists college majors that match one's personality by average scores in each of the categories.

I found this very amusing because if it isn't rigged in some way, which I have no reason to suspect that it is, then it predicted the college major I had already chosen, Economics.

It lists Economics majors as being Average on Openness, High on Conscientiousness, Low on Extraversion, Very Low on Agreeableness, And Average on Neuroticism.

Vichy writes:

"Possibility #3: Some personalities see the world more clearly than others."

Without getting into the accuracy of these particular empirical tests, there is also a fourth possibility: that people frequently prefer to resolve emotional dissonance but are (on average) less likely to confront cognitive dissonance. When the two are in conflict - when what you know isn't what you've been taught is 'good' for example - resolving concepts into emotive presuppositions may be a common method of human idea formation. It is well known that people do not simply fail to make correct inferences, sometimes they seem to deliberately (if unconsciously) deny inferences that are right in front of them, or confront evidence that annihilates their view. This follows naturally from another process - you learn about what you find interesting and rewarding. Consequentially, anything that's annoying and discomforting is much less likely to see attention.

'Rational ignorance' and psychological bias are perfectly compatible; it has to be understood that rationality itself is 'purposeless', it makes no commands, demands nothing. Our subjective psychological preferences, and our radical ignorance (not knowing what we don't know) play a huge part in making decisions, including decisions on what to look into, what to believe and how to interpret what is in our own interests.

Constant writes:

Compassionate people focus on the bottom of the society, and market doesn't work great there. Compare USA with, say, Cuba

or with North Korea, another communist holdout. Cherry-picked comparisons prove little. If you want a more appropriate comparison, compare North Korea with South Korea. Here you have the closest we can get to a laboratory experiment with confounding factors as controlled as they can possibly be.

Jay Thomas writes:

Bryan: I want quibble a little with your conflation of Agreeableness and emotionalism.


Speaking for myself I have no problem being polite and pleasant and 'warm' toward others in social situations, and I do value 'niceness' in others for its own sake.

Agreeableness makes superficial relationships more pleasant in a multitude of ways.

I am currently living in Japan and one of the most satisfying things about being in this country is how very agreeable it is.

Is that a concession to emotionalism at the expense of truth seeking?

Personally I think that placing a relatively high value on pleasant social interactions hasn't stymied my own willingness to embrace non- mainstream beliefs where I believe them to be more objectively correct.

Tom West writes:

So when someone suggests that the minimum wage might actually hurt the poor by causing unemployment, they just get hysterical.

Could we at least use an example where the actual facts hew a little closer to economic principle? Minimum wage legislation is one place where reality refuses to confirm to the iron law of economics in any substantive or repeatable way. Most economists seem to realize (given their overwhelming support for minimum wage laws) that the number of jobs where the value created by the job is less than the new minimum wage is pretty small. Minimum wage laws (within reason) seem mostly to allow the poorest rungs to capture more of the surplus created by their job.

Surely there are better areas where economic principles actually seem to work as expected (say trade) that one can use.

Tom West writes:

I suspect Kurbla is correct. If you decided that you wanted to design a society which maximizes the happiness of the bottom 20%, and assume that both absolute level of poverty AND relative level of poverty have strong effects on that happiness, then many of the correct policies are indeed anti-market.

Perhaps the agreeable are very rational in pursuing policies that reach their desired end, just very bad at articulating or even being explicitly aware of their desired end.

Constant writes:

Most economists seem to realize (given their overwhelming support for minimum wage laws) that the number of jobs where the value created by the job is less than the new minimum wage is pretty small.

Since you linked to nothing, I tried to find what you might be referring to. I found this, which says:

83.5% of US economists (and 78.8% of Australian economists) believe that “A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers"

and this, which says:

He asked petition signatories why they favor increasing the minimum wage. The results are striking, most of all for how far they stand outside traditional economic reasoning

In brief, it appears that (a) most economists think a minimum wage increase is harmful, and (b) the minority who support it generally do so for bad reasons which have little to do with their economic expertise. Reasons such as:

A low cost demonstration of concern for low wage workers that causes little damage.

Maybe next time you'll save me the trouble by backing up your claims so I don't have to suffer the agony of trying to confirm them and only finding devastating refutation.

Tom West writes:

Refutation taken (about the economists, not reality). I should have googled instead of half remembering petitions.

However, I will say that those who support it *have* to be outside mainstream economic reasoning because mainstream economic reasoning doesn't match the actual experience of minimum wage laws (that the job loss is minimal or non-measurable).

Moreover, I doubt many economists at all would support minimum wage if they felt it was actually working against the interests of the poor.

If you want a reality-based argument against minimum wage, you're better off with Steven Landsburg's argument in Slate. If you hate redistribution, then certainly you won't like minimum wage.

Look, all I am saying is that minimum wage arguments are a classical case of economists with physics envy. The theory is nice and beautiful, and those messy humans are fouling it up with their non-conforming behaviour.

Really, the whole thing is symptomatic of the fact that while economics is the study of one category of *human* behaviour (in other words, a sub-branch of sociology/psychology), a fair number of economists feel their field should be able to be produce a set of rules that works as well as those in physics, math or chemistry.

Likewise, there's also a strong tendency for people to try and cloak Libertarian arguments in economic argument clothes. i.e. they don't feel they can successfully argue simply that people should be free to offer whatever wage they like, so they try to pretend that not doing so has catastrophic consequences.

This means that they end up defending what much of the populace knows is 'wrong', where wrong can encompass a great deal from the simple facts to the failure to take into account human factors such as fear, status games, disgust, etc.

Sorry for going off topic, but I find this tendency in economics quite distressing as it causes the general populace to devalue economics far more than they should. After all, if it's so obviously wrong about what they can see, why should they think it is right about what they can't?

Constant writes:

Tom - it may be that economists (and libertarians) sometimes ask the argument to carry more weight than it really can. The basic argument is simply the point that there's a trade-off: if you raise the minimum wage, theory predicts that while the wage of some will be lifted, there will also be a countervailing tendency to increase unmemployment. But this point (a) does not supply you with actual numbers (those, after all, depend on things which need to be empirically determined such as people's actual preferences, elasticity etc.), and (b) does not prove that the one effect (the increase in unemployment) "outbalances" the other effect (the rise in wages). Whether one outbalances the other is a judgment, not merely a prediction. Even if we could predict to the last penny what happens, in the end the assessment of which effect was the more important would be a judgment. You can, of course, try to mechanize the judgment by applying certain efficiency criteria, but the decision to treat the outcome of that calculation as the one to go by is itself a judgment.

However on the whole I am inclined to defend the argument against the minimum wage as far as it really does go.

However, I will say that those who support it *have* to be outside mainstream economic reasoning because mainstream economic reasoning doesn't match the actual experience of minimum wage laws (that the job loss is minimal or non-measurable).

That doesn't tell me very much because causality is very hard to measure in something like an economy. You can't do controlled experiments etc. So your claim that the job loss is non-measurable does not tell me that it is minimal.

Feel free to present me with some paper or somebody mentioning work that does the very, very hard work of trying to figure out the causality. But we remain ignorant of causality even in cases where the whole country hangs in the balance, for example the causes and therefore the cure of the current recession. I'm seeing a lot of strong opinions but I'm seeing a lot of conflicting opinions and nothing is really coming out of this as genuine knowledge. The wildly false prediction about the rise in umemployment and the apparently wildly false prediction about the effect of the stimulus do nothing to boost my confidence in our empirical tools for unraveling the causal factors in the economy. It's on point that one could argue that the stimulus may have indeed had a good effect because unemployment might have been even higher otherwise. That simply underlines the difficulty of empirically determining what the causality is.

Generally speaking, I predict that people will reliably make the error that Bastiat and Hazlitt both pointed out: people tend to see only part of the picture, in this case the easily visible boost that a minimum wage hike will have on those who are employed at minimum wage both before and after. This is the problem of the seen versus the unseen. See either Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson or Bastiat's What is Seen and What is Unseen. Since this is a reliable bias (in favor of the seen), I am not at all surprised that the widespread experience of wage control will be strongly biased in favor of noticing the benefit while missing the cost. Theory is useful in making us keenly aware of the potential for a perverse side-effect. And a moment's thought should make us realize that this perverse side-effect is by its very nature hard to see. It is hard to see what would have been. Causality needs counterfactuals. It is hard to see individuals who would have been hired but who are not now hired. It is hard to see individuals who have given up trying to find a job specifically because of the wage hike. We try to see these things by gathering enough data that we can infer, from the numbers, what must have happened in countless individual cases, but it is hard to disentangle these things even with lots of numbers at our disposal. For instance I recall reading that the unemployment statistic compares those getting to those seeking a job, but such a statistic by its very design happens to miss those who have stopped looking out of despair at ever finding a job - those who have given up. Those too are harmed but they are not counted in a figure that excludes them by design. (Wikipedia says: "Unemployment occurs when a person is available to work and seeking work but currently without work.")

Look, all I am saying is that minimum wage arguments are a classical case of economists with physics envy. The theory is nice and beautiful, and those messy humans are fouling it up with their non-conforming behaviour.

Some people may be using the arguments that way, but there's another way to use them, and that is to overcome the abovementioned bias in favor of the seen over the unseen. It is to let people understand precisely how a wage hike (and price controls generally) could have a perverse incentive. People's knee-jerk, un-tutored intuition completely misses the perverse effects on supply and demand of price controls. Okay, so maybe it's theory, but people come at the world already armed with a folk theory that just simply ignorese effects on supply and demand. Thus, people don't come equipped with the mental tools to realize how it is that (to shift to another common example) when you tax one party of the transaction, this changes his supply curve which, in effect, causes both parties to the transaction to share the cost of the tax, and that the proportion shared by each depends on their supply and demand curves. Okay, granted, this is "merely" theory, but it's superior to the folk "theory of the stupid" which simply takes product availability for granted. "Huh, government introduced price controls on bread and gas and now the shelves are bare and there are these long lines at the gas pump, gee, who could have predicted that", or even worse, "the suppliers are evil, just look at how they're maliciously reacting to the new laws by deliberately refusing to sell products with a price ceiling, these are wreckers, let's string them up."

This means that they end up defending what much of the populace knows is 'wrong', where wrong can encompass a great deal from the simple facts to the failure to take into account human factors such as fear, status games, disgust, etc.

Much of the population "knows" it is wrong often because much of the population suffers from biases such as the tendency to be completely oblivious to that which is unseen, allowing the populace to fall for such things as the broken window fallacy.

Sorry for going off topic, but I find this tendency in economics quite distressing as it causes the general populace to devalue economics far more than they should. After all, if it's so obviously wrong about what they can see, why should they think it is right about what they can't?

I seriously question the judgment of any individual who thinks it is trivial to see such things as the full effects of a minimum wage hike. A person might go around, see people working at a new higher minimum wage, and conclude, "wow, it worked". He is not equipped to measure the less easily seen effects.

aub writes:

Tom West:
I suspect Kurbla is correct. If you decided that you wanted to design a society which maximizes the happiness of the bottom 20%, and assume that both absolute level of poverty AND relative level of poverty have strong effects on that happiness, then many of the correct policies are indeed anti-market.

Perhaps the agreeable are very rational in pursuing policies that reach their desired end, just very bad at articulating or even being explicitly aware of their desired end.

Tom, I agree with you that Cuba is the desired end for the 'agreeable' and that many are not explicitly aware that it is their desired end.

Tom West writes:

Constant, you make many good points about the difficulty in measuring the long term effects of economic policy and how easy it is to ignore second order effects.

But the danger is high that because of the difficulty of obtaining empirical data from which you can build models, that you end up building models based on essentially simulations of a society populated by homo economus. Then when results seem to diverge from the models, you claim that you cannot get realistic results to test the model.

Obviously, the same can hold true for models that *are* accurate. But if the theory is not falsifiable (especially over the domain that matters), then what you have is essentially economists claiming authority by decree.

Why not choose a point for argument in which the results are a lot clearer rather than a point in which you have to claim people are worse off because the theory says so.

Tom West writes:

Tom, I agree with you that Cuba is the desired end for the 'agreeable' and that many are not explicitly aware that it is their desired end.

Ah, but you say that as if it was a bad thing. I suspect that if the world turned into Cubas leaving America atop a no longer growing heap, you might indeed find large numbers (perhaps even a majority) of Americans happier. (At least among the Agreeable.)

I think the problem here is that Bryan feels everyone shares (or should share) his utility function. I suspect that is far from the truth.

Sam writes:

As a person at the 99th percentile of the Thinking distribution, I see the "Agreeableness" label as a conspiracy of the Feeling to condemn me for my truth-seeking disposition. Seriously.

Bryan, I think perhaps this says more about your Neuroticism (or sense of humor?) than it does about others.

liberty writes:

I suggest doing a little research about how well off the bottom rung in Cuba actually are, before praising too highly.

This is not the best source (there are plenty of better sources) but it is visually stimulating:
http://gatewaypundit.blogspot.com/2007/06/michael-moores-wish-for-america-cuban.html

liberty writes:

Much more here: http://www.therealcuba.com/

Tom West writes:

Okay, perhaps the "platonic idea of Cuba" :-). i.e. a society were there is a lot less inequality and greater security at considerable cost in growth and technological innovation.

The point I was somewhat facetiously trying to make is that there's probably a lot of people who would trade future growth for things they consider valuable, as long as they were still atop of the heap among other countries. (As Europe can attest, it's no good having job security and all those other wonderful things if other countries (i.e. USA) are forcibly pointing out what it costs you.) As long as *nobody* has high growth, then those things are essentially 'free' (as long as you don't go backward, in which case you compare with the past).

People like Bryan who want absolute improvement would suffer, but they well be in a minority. After all, most people weren't moaning about how miserable the 60's were, and we were vastly poorer then.

Anyway Liberty, yes, yes, I do agree, Cuba is not a paradise and nobody would really want to become like them.

dieter writes:
Bryan Caplan wrote:

Possibility #3: Some personalities see the world more clearly than others.

My example:

People high in Agreeableness are emotional and refuse to face the reality of trade-offs. So when someone suggests that the minimum wage might actually hurt the poor by causing unemployment, they just get hysterical. People low in Agreeableness, in contrast, are logical and eager to identify trade-offs. So when you ask them about the disemployment effect of the minimum wage, they calmly consider the argument, and realize that it makes sense.


You are assuming that the disagreeable are #1 better informed and #2 well intentioned.

That leads us to possibility #4 (bad intentions):

The disagreeable have contempt for both the poor and the unemployed and oppose any policy intended to help either of those groups, regardless of tradeoffs.

And possibility #5 (bad economics):

Conservatives wrongly believe that capitalism is meritocratic (in an intuitive sense of justness). They might oppose the minimum wage because it messes with the magic market force towards merit.

And for good measure possibility #6:

Correlations between personality types and ideology or support for specific policies are but a mere historical coincidence.

That looks more plausible, if you compare policies supported by various european political parties across time and across borders on issues such as prostitution, nicotine vs. marihuana, support for the common market vs. nationalistic protectionism, privacy, raunchy advertisements and pop culture, subsidies and tariffs in agriculture, etc.

I just don't see a clear mapping of political camps to policy.

The mexican greens recently came out in favor of the death penalty for sexual predators.

It is also notable that a huge amount of political debate in the US is concerned about the meaning of liberalism and conservatism. Liberal and Conservative intellectuals are constantly arguing about what real liberalism/conservatism means and are denouncing others as the wrong kind of liberal/conservative.

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