Why Government Haters Hate Government Shutdowns

Psychological research explains by people who would not save government in general are mad when it isn’t available in particular

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman documents an important psychological phenomenon that is relevant to understanding reactions to the federal government shutdown. In a series of psychological studies, research subjects were asked to react to a particular vivid prototype, for example a photo of one bird struggling to escape an oil spill. After being asked how much they would donate to save the bird, the subjects are then asked how much they would donate to save countless birds from all of the world’s oil spills. Surprisingly, the two answers tend to be similar. That is, people who will donate $10 to save a particular prototypic bird in distress in one location will only donate $10 to save an unspecified number of birds in distress in many unspecified locations. It’s a stunning finding in that the subjects’ responses are logically equivalent to saying that birds in general are worthless but one particular bird has significant value.

Kahnemann’s interprets such results to mean that human beings often react strongly to prototypes but are insensitive to quantity. Someone who says they would volunteer 100 hours in a hospital to save one movingly described sick little girl may not even offer to volunteer at all if asked to respond to the general problem of sick children in hospitals. Politically, this translates into many people reacting to particular instances differently than they do the broader phenomenon from which the prototypical instance springs. For example, many people who went to protests about Trayvon Martin’s death would not necessarily go to a protest regarding the long-term, pervasive problem of violence against young black males.

This observation about human psychology helps explain why, in a country where many people profess to hate the government, the GOP is getting hammered by the public for closing down the government. To government haters “the federal government” as a whole is a big amorphous money pit that they would not miss if it disappeared. However, as the shutdown goes on, national and local media are carrying stories of the shutdown’s concrete and understandable impacts.

With each sad story of a particular family’s vacation ruined by a park closing, a disabled veteran not receiving VA services, a little boy being thrown out of Head Start, or a study of cancer treatment being ruined, government haters find themselves being mad that the government is closed, because what government does has been brought down to a prototypic understandable level to which they can relate. Like the subjects in the bird experiment, they wouldn’t lift a finger to save government in general, but they are sorely distressed at the loss of government in particular.

A Memorial Day Weekend Reflection on Political Memory

Why do we remember politicians as being against things they were for, and vice versa?

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Do you think you have a good political memory? Try this little five question quiz.

Which US President dramatically cut federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession, was a forceful advocate for expanded food stamps and affirmative action, and worked closely with Congress to create the Environmental Protection Agency?

(a) John F. Kennedy
(b) Lyndon Johnson
(c) Jimmy Carter
(d) Richard Nixon

The share of GDP devoted to social spending increased from 22% to an unprecedented 26.7% in just the first three years of what UK Prime Minister’s Rule?

(a) Clement Atlee
(b) Ramsay MacDonald
(c) David Lloyd George
(d) John Major

As governor, he signed a bill that expanded access to legal abortion, over two million of which subsequently occured on his watch. He also passed the biggest tax increase in the history of his state. Who was he?

(a) Mario Cuomo
(b) Patrick Lucey
(c) Terry Sanford
(d) Ronald Reagan

As President, he delighted the wealthiest Americans by pushing for a decrease in the top income tax rate from 91% to 65%

(a) Ronald Reagan
(b) Gerald Ford
(c) Calvin Coolidge
(d) John F. Kennedy

After their election in 2010, the UK Conservative-LibDem coalition inherited a record annual government spending level of about 670 billion pounds. They introduced what was widely termed “austerity” fiscal policy, with government spending in the first year doing what?

(a) Decreasing by about 70 billion pounds
(b) Decreasing by about 40 billion pounds
(c) Decreasing by about 10 billion pounds
(d) Increasing by about 20 billion pounds

The answer to all 5 questions is (d). Seriously. The “heartless” Richard Nixon wanted to end hunger among the poor, and the “liberal champion” John Kennedy was the millionaire’s best friend. “Tight-fisted” British Tories have expanded social and other spending and conservative icon Ronald Reagan signed off on big tax increases (and not just as governor) and expanded access to abortion.

Many people’s memories of politicians erase the contradictions, complexities and compromises of governance that are invariably characteristic of elected leaders. Often this is in the service of current political agendas (e.g., “Ronald Reagan never raised taxes so let’s not betray his legacy by doing it now!”) or emotional needs (e.g., the desire to see one’s own “team” as perfect or the other “team” as thoroughgoing monsters).

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman might add that our inherent cognitive laziness also plays a role. Not really knowing a specific fact such as John Major’s record on social spending, many people substitute in their mind something they do know (Major was a Tory and Tories often oppose social spending) and become confident that they recall an event or policy that in fact never happened.