The Frontal Cortex

Politics and Current Events

A new paper by Paola Giuliano, an economist at UCLA, and Antonio Spilimbergo, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, looks at how severe recessions, depressions and other “macroeconomic shocks” influence the political beliefs of young adults. Here’s the abstract:

Do generations growing up during recessions have different socio-economic beliefs than generations growing up in good times? We study the relationship between recessions and beliefs by matching macroeconomic shocks during early adulthood with self-reported answers from the General Social Survey. Using time and regional variations in macroeconomic conditions to identify the effect of recessions on beliefs, we show that individuals growing up during recessions tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort, support more government redistribution, but are less confident in public institutions. Moreover, we find that recessions have a long-lasting effect on individuals’ beliefs.

I’d be curious to compare the effect of recessions with the effect of war and foreign conflict on the political beliefs of the young. Sheldon Solomon and colleagues, for instance, have looked at how our political beliefs can be shifted when people are primed with different thoughts. To make a long story short, thoughts of death and war tend to make us more conservative, while thoughts of pain and suffering make us more liberal.

Consider a 2004 experiment led by Solomon and Mark Landau, which looked at how the threat of terrorism affected the 2004 Presidential election. Some students were asked to think about the possibility of their own death, a process Landau and Solomon refer to as “mortality salience”. The other group was primed with thoughts of pain, as they were asked to contemplate their most painful personal experience. The subjects then completed a short survey in which they were asked to rate both George Bush and John Kerry on an eight-point scale.

When people were asked to think about pain, they preferred Kerry by a wide margin. His average rating was 5.5 points, compared to Bush’s 2.2. However, when the scientists triggered thoughts of death – the mortality salience condition – Bush suddenly became much more popular. In fact, he now received significantly higher ratings than Kerry.

I think this research sheds light on how “macroeconomic shocks” – which make us constantly think about the pain of others, suffering in the unemployment line – might lead to a more liberal set of beliefs. In contrast, young adults who come of age during periods of war and belligerence might trend conservative. I wouldn’t begin to pretend, of course, that the swings of political history can be explained by a few clever priming experiments. But I think it’s clear that the tenor of current events – and the content of the nightly news – does influence our ideological perspective on the world.

PS. Ross Douthat has more.

Comments

  1. #1 Lyle
    December 2, 2009

    If you have read Strauss and Howe’s work on generations, there is a chicken and egg situation here. But in any case the 2 big recent events Depression and recent events, align with the rise of what they call a civic generation (GI and Millenial) The Crisises are caused by a me generation, the missionary generation for the 30s and the boomers for right now. Strauss and Howe view an approximatily 80 year cycle in American History, and it is interesting how the 80 years are just up.

  2. #2 OftenWrongTed
    December 2, 2009

    This post reminds me of “THOUGHTS ON PEACE DURING AN AIR RAID,” by Virginia Woolf, written in August 1940. Woolf said that fear and thinking about war “interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace.” Woolf also had a course of action to stabilize her thoughts during the London bombings. She quoted Blake, “I will not cease from mental fight.” Woolf adds “mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it.”

  3. #3 phisrow
    December 2, 2009

    I find it interesting(though not wholly surprising) that you can prime somebody to think about death or war without also, by implication, priming them to think about pain and suffering.

  4. #4 royniles
    December 2, 2009

    Liberalism or conservatism as strategies for a particular time in the ever-changing economic cycle are perhaps more of a pragmatic reaction than ideological. The individual characteristics that tend to foster the growth of a particular ideology as one’s predominant individual strategy, or life strategy if you will, can persist regardless of cyclical change.

    Conservatism can often be a pragmatic strategy, but pragmatism will not be determinant of the conservative’s ideology.

  5. #5 tstm89
    December 3, 2009

    I think these findings seem to leave out the fact that the parties are designed to attract these personality types. The democrats since Roosevelt at least have very consciously been the party of Charles Dickens, while republicans since Eisenhower have been sold as the party of George Patton and John Wayne. This all despite the fact that both parties have tended to only disagree over so called “hot-button issues”. Of course participants would respond that way. It’s all by design.

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