Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Why Do People Have "Crazy" Beliefs?
Obviously, some "crazy" beliefs reflect people who have not been exposed to alternative views. There are plenty of people who have merely adopted the stock set of beliefs their culture, society, or dominant identity group without seeking out and considering alternative positions. It is hard to think of people with such views as "crazy." They are largely just isolated and uneducated. I am more interested in how people can, in spite of being aware of alternative positions, hold such massively different beliefs.
Applying economic tools can help us understand this issue. As usual, we want to ask what are the benefits and costs associated with having certain beliefs?
Two papers provide interesting models which help provide insights into this issues. First, Ed Glaeser's fascinating "The Political Economy of Hatred" develops a model to explain why groups hate each other. He breaks hatred down into demand and supply asking why would someone be willing to hate another group (which is costly to them) and what prompts people (particularly politicians, etc.) to supply hatred. Here is the abstract:
This paper develops a model of the interaction between the supply of hate-creating stories from politicians and the willingness of voters to listen to hatred. Hatred is fostered with stories of an out-group's crimes, but the impact of these stories comes from repetition not truth. Hate-creating stories are supplied by politicians when such actions help to discredit opponents whose policies benefit an out-group. Egalitarians foment hatred against rich minorities; opponents of redistribution build hatred against poor minorities. Hatred relies on people accepting, rather than investigating, hate-creating stories. Hatred declines when there is private incentive to learn the truth. Increased economic interactions with a minority group may provide that incentive. This framework is used to illuminate the evolution of anti-black hatred in the United States South, episodes of anti-Semitism in Europe, and
the recent surge of anti-Americanism in the Arab world.
The second paper, Laurence Iannaccone's "Sacrifice and Stigma," examines why rational agents willingly adopt strange requirements and beliefs as part of religious and social groups. He argues that having costly beliefs and behaviors is a way of preventing free-riders from lowering the quality of the religious of social experience. That is, people like to attend churches which provide a strong religious experience. However, the strength of the religious experience for everyone is diminished by the presence of a number of people who are only marginally into it. Thus, in order to keep out people who are only marginally religious, churches adopt rigid rules and beliefs in order to make it more costly to participate. Here is the abstract to his paper:
This paper presents an economic analysis of religious behavior that accounts for the continuing success of groups with strange requirements and seemingly inefficient prohibitions. The analysis does not presuppose any special motives for religious activity. Rather, religion is modeled as a club good that displays positive returns to "participatory crowding." The analysis demonstrates that efficient religions with perfectly rational members may benefit from stigma, self-sacrifice, and bizarre behavioral restrictions. The model also addresses sacrifice in nonreligious "social clubs": fraternities, communes, political parties, work groups, and families.
You should try and read at least the introductions to both of these papers.
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