Monday, January 2, 2012

Fear and Trust in Government- and Self

Jaime Napier is an Assistant Professor at Yale University.  She along with a number of collegues  have released a series of studies that show at least some of the dynamics of how people choose which groups to support, and what that support is brought under pressure.

God and the Government: Testing a Compensatory Control Mechanism for the Support of External Systems:  Jamie L. Napier, Aaron C. Kay, Danielle Gaucher, Mitchell J. Callan, Kristin Laurin,  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 95, No. 1, 18–35(hat tip: Overcoming Bias).
The authors propose that the high levels of support often observed for governmental and religious systems can be explained, in part, as a means of coping with the threat posed by chronically or situationally fluctuating levels of perceived personal control.
Three experiments demonstrated a causal relation between lowered perceptions of personal control and the defense of external systems, including increased beliefs in the existence of a controlling God (Studies 1 and 2) and defense of the overarching socio-political system (Study 4).

A 4th experiment (Study 5) showed the converse to be true: A challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to increased illusory perceptions of personal control. In addition, a cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal control are associated with higher support for governmental control (across 67 nations; Study 3)...
So what they are saying is that the less control we feel over our own situation, or a particular part of our lives, the more likely we are going to turn to the god or the government.
With some additional, confirming, studies coming out,  Robin Hanson noted: 
Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias, 10 November 2011
I (again) suspect we act similarly toward medicine, law, and other authorities: we trust them more when we feel vulnerable to them, and we then avoid info that might undermine such trust.
In the discussion section the Napier paper, they note:
…in coping with the existential threat posed by lowered (or chronically low) levels of personal control, people increase their support for broad external systems that impose order and control on their peronsal lives, such as religious and sociopolitical systems.
Of course the study is looking for greater trends, not specific social settings. So what are the survivalist coping mechanisms in an increasingly complex world:
  1. One method of coping is to ignore the new information. Continue on with the derived status quo.
  2. Another method would be to put your faith in institutions and work within groups to cope.
  3. Finally, someone could reject the group and isolate themselves from the process.
There are many permutations of all these categories.

The shop-till-you-drop, lets go to the beach crowd are obviously in the first category. I would say that to some degree the obsessive hobbyist does as well.

I would argue that the people who view current world problems through the lens of partisan politics are somewhere between group 1 and 2. Partisan politics tends to be very status qou but when you start moving into Glen Beck or Nouriel Roubini territory you are starting to at least look at system change. To my mind, the Achilles heel of the secular versions of the Number 2 crowd is that they tend to find a hammer, and then all the problems become nails. If they watch MSNBC the Tea Party is the villain, if they watch Fox it's the Occupy Wall Street slackers. That both groups might be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not likely to occur to them.

The second group is also going to include many religious groups. That so many religious faiths (not just the monotheists) espouse an end-of-the-world-is-coming philosophy clearly indicates that they are often outside the status quo.

The final group are the isolationists. And again they come in all sorts of varieties. Your hippie communes and christian homesteaders, your build a bunker survivalist would all tend to fit in this category: maybe even a  Unabomber.   For some reason (logic possibly?) they have come to distrust both the status quo, and have not joined one of the coping groups.

Obviously, by going it alone they give up potential supporting groups. I think most members within the third category would find such help problematic and off-base in any case.

To my mind the biggest problem with the third category is that there is a tendency to "look for the keys under the street light"
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks whey he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is." Wikipedia "Streetlight effect".
The individualist is going to look for problems to correct that they themselves have some ability to effect.  Many of the "solutions" chosen seem to be as much about taking control of your own life as they do about solving whatever perceived problems there may be.  However, the historical success of relatively isolated individuals within a greater social structure is somewhat problematic.  To look at it from a "survivalist" perspective, while Ferfal has his idiosyncrasies, he has lived through an economic-political collapse (2001 Argentina:  they had 5 presidents in 10 days).  While economic collapse is not the only survivalist scenario out there, it is one of the more popular one.  Yet very few survivalist-homesteaders appear to pay any attention to his experiences.  And Ferfal himself, having found a couping mechanism, seems to be very slow to adjust to the idea  that there are many other ways a society collapses.  He does not just report his experiences, he universalizes them.

Enough of my soap box talk: and circling back to the some of the original points about government and more specifically religion.  And here I will leave you with Emanuel Comte, the lead character in Robert Merle's classic Malevil speaking to a friend who is an avowed atheist (p579 mass paperback):

"Is it so idiotic to pray?  We are surrounded by the unknown.  And because we need to be optimistic in order to survive, we assume that the unknown is kindly disposed toward us and , and we ask it to help us."

Jamie Napier

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