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.