Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Built to Last

Joe Carter from First Things heps us to an interesting Q & A from an interview with Dan Ariely (professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University) that appeared at the RSA Journal:

MT: This is the kind of insight that drives me to reconsider social conservatism. Economic historian Avner Offer, for example, has argued that society creates certain ‘commitment devices’ – marriage, the welfare state, the church – that enable us to deal with our frailties. He goes on to claim that, when we became affluent in the 1960s and 1970s, we no longer needed these devices, which led to a situation in which we were richer but not happier. So, do you think institutions have a value in motivating people to make decisions that are better for them in the long term?

DA: These institutions have evolved over a long time and involve many clever features. If you spend £25,000 on a wedding in front of lots of people, for instance, you’re less likely to break off the relationship when things are not going as smoothly as you would hope. When we engage in an outcome that we think is irreversible, we often become committed to it and, by doing so, find ourselves enjoying it more.

Another interesting institution is the Catholic practice of confession. From a rational perspective, confession is a strange mechanism: after all, if you knew you could get absolved for cheating, you ought to be inclined to cheat more often, ideally on the way to the church to minimise the chances of dying without absolution. However, our experiments in cheating show a particular pattern: people start by cheating a little bit, because they’re trying to balance feeling good about themselves with benefiting from cheating, but after they’ve reached a certain point, they begin thinking of themselves as cheaters and, once this happens, they start cheating a lot. In this instance, confession really helps, as it gives people a chance to turn over a new page.

What this shows is that people inherently want to be honest – more honest, in fact, than traditional economic theory suggests--but once they start thinking of themselves as a bad person, there’s nothing to stop them from carrying on down that road.

What too many in our modern age fail to appreciate is that traditional institutions such as marriage and the Catholic sacrament of pennance haven't been around for thousands of years because some particular person (or persons) in history arbitrarily decided that they were the right thing to do. They've survived because they have succeeded in building better and stronger societies and people. In short, they've been proven to work. Something to keep in mind in our current culture's seemingly endless search for alternative answers.