Cynicism vs Skepticism, Or How Hypocrisy Happens

I thankfully have a very excellent excuse for siding with quasi-[tooltip content=”An economist who holds the strong belief that the economy’s performance is determined almost entirely by changes in the money supply.” url=”” ]monetarists[/tooltip] like Scott Sumner and Niklas Blanchard for moving away from believing fiscal stimulus is the answer to economic recessions (technically I’m still not 100% convinced they it can’t help), but not everyone has a good excuse:

I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences.

My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties.

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: “When reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not.”

I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

Perhaps I’m not understanding the concept of cynicism well enough but whether it’s cynical skepticism or simply a different form of skepticism, Ezra Klein can play semantics all he wants – it’s all cynicism to me.

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