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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

30 thoughts on “Why Government Haters Hate Government Shutdowns”

  1. According to Jane Vennochi of the Boston Globe, David Koch was so moved by by the pleas of MIT lab workers who said they needed day care that he ponied up $20 million for a child-care center at MIT. “‘I got a tear in my eye,’ [Koch] said, when he heard biology researchers at MIT say that child care would improve their work lives.” http://b.globe.com/1cQQ441

    Of course, Koch and his brother spend millions more than that to deny literally millions of other, unknown and unseen, people the benefits of child care programs such as Head Start.

    1. I’ve worked in the Koch Building, across the way from the previous MIT day care center, and had colleagues who had kids there. It was nice, but not spectacular (the outdoor play area that displayed the kids like animals in a zoo was amusing; I was always tempted to post a “do not feed the children” sign) – and if it was subsidized, it wasn’t nearly subsidized enough. The rough equation was 1 graduate student stipend = the cost of 1 infant’s daycare, quite a stretch for a young couple working in the Koch Building to improve human health. I had colleagues in exactly that situation, so the need was very real. I’m glad he donated for better daycare; more generally, and in fairness, David Koch has been generous to biological research at MIT. That should hardly distract us from the concentrated evil of his other efforts (see this, yesterday, for example), nor from the self-interest involved in his promoting his vision of a country with low taxes and little or nothing in the way of labor and environmental standards.

      1. …the Koch Building…

        I like to believe that once upon a time filthy rich people gave money without the stipulation that their name appear on the marquee.
        I could be wrong. Could be that gracelessness has always been joined at the hip with “self made men” who got a leg up in life by inheriting daddy’s oil company.

        What do liberals think when they go into the David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center?
        Sure the bathroom graffiti in the David Koch Stalls must be quite sharp…
        But how do they rationalize their patronage?

        At any rate: I wonder how many eponymous public buildings this classless rich boob has acquired?

        Or perhaps some better questions:

        How many building does David Koch need named after him to reach a satiation point?
        Is there even a satiation point? Obviously having one building isn’t enough. A city might do eh?
        Does Kahneman have anything to say about the mental sickness born of great wealth and fame?

        The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multimedia exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change. At the main entrance, viewers are confronted with a giant graph charting the Earth’s temperature over the past ten million years, which notes that it is far cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago. Overhead, the text reads, “HUMANS EVOLVED IN RESPONSE TO A CHANGING WORLD.” The message, as amplified by the exhibit’s Web site, is that “key human adaptations evolved in response to environmental instability.” Only at the end of the exhibit, under the headline “OUR SURVIVAL CHALLENGE,” is it noted that levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been, and that they are projected to increase dramatically in the next century. No cause is given for this development; no mention is made of any possible role played by fossil fuels. The exhibit makes it seem part of a natural continuum. The accompanying text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.” An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future. People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”

        By the way, it is always worth a reminder:

        Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products. Forbes ranks it as the second-largest private company in the country, after Cargill, and its consistent profitability has made David and Charles Koch—who, years ago, bought out two other brothers—among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

        Both quotes pulled from:
        The Billionaire Koch Brothers’ War Against Obama : The New Yorker

        1. You might want to look up James Smithson on Wikipedia 😉 Or walk through any college campus more than 50 years old.


          1. = = = Koch also makes AngelSoft toilet tissue, which was formerly my preference. = = =

            That actually makes we want to buy a few rolls and use them. Even if the Kochs do pocket a few pennies the image is worth it.


        2. >>Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.>>

          Well, in fairness to the competitors, if you want to count their combined fortune, then you ought to count the combined fortune of the Walton’s, too.

          See? They’re not so hot, after all.

    2. You could see this as Koch trying to ensure that the right kind of people get child care and the wrong kind of people don’t.

  2. Kahneman, of course was cribbing from Joe Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

    1. Or, as Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die.”

  3. The fascinating thing about Republicans is not that they have this tendency, it’s that they get so agitated in defense of this tendency that they can never acknowledge that saving more birds might be better.

  4. I get the larger point about prototypes versus entire populations, but I’m not sure I follow its application to gov’t haters and the shutdown. Does Kahneman’s observation apply only to positive actions like donating money? What about negative actions like protesting government tyranny? It might not be that the government haters see “an amorphous money pit” — I think they see a very specific prototype of a liberal/black/freeloader/socialist/muslim/etc/etc./etc. It’s why they were so quick to label it Obamacare. Say “healthcare reform” and the government haters see the Kenyan Usurper; say “Medicare” and they see the benevolent reward of their hard work. I think the famous Tea Party sign about keeping “government’s hands off my medicare” really illustrates Kahneman’s point.

  5. Environmental and animal rights activists have understood this, maybe without realizing it, for decades. It is much harder to get people to care or donate money to save a complex ecosystem, but much easier to get them to save a photogenic, charismatic mega-fauna, giving rise to adopting poster species for supporting what is a much more complicated issue than one cuddly bear or cute owl.

    I don’t know if it is EXACTLY the same thing once you peel back the psychology, but it seems to me to be in the same general area.

    1. Dennis Leary:

      “What are you?”
      “I’m an Otter.”
      “What do you do?”
      “I swim around on my back and do cute human things with my hands.”
      “You’re free to go.”

      “What are you?”
      “I’m a cow.”
      “Get on the truck.”
      “But I’m an animal! I have rights!”
      “You’re a baseball glove. Get on the truck with your brother.”

  6. The psychology of single case/whole population perception is a factor here, but there are other perceptive factors which weigh equally. When the US enacted Medicare in 1965, it created a separate age-based constituency which now sees itself as having paid for its benefits, but does not see that it will draw more out of the Medicare system than it paid in. Similarly, voters with employer-based health insurance see their benefits as earned, but do not perceive the extent to which tax subsidies support those benefits. Neither constituency sees itself as a beneficiary of the public purse, but each is quick to see others (Medicaid) as freeloaders. Political fragmentation works toward the interests of corporate power as it makes “government” a term signifying what others get at my expense.

  7. There’s a rational basis for at least one of these examples.
    If I volunteer to save one sick little girl, I can look at this one little girl and know I have helped someone. If I volunteer in the broader cause, it will likely be much harder to tie my efforts to any tangible benefits felt by any identifiable real people.

  8. After the Republicans crash the economy, I do so hope they’ll have to submit to drug screening.

    That said, even if they are doped up, I’ve always felt no one does anything on drugs they weren’t already inclined to do anyway. That’s why there are millions of peaceful dope smokers, despite claims about ax-murdering psychosis to the contrary.

    Someone slip ’em some good brownies while they’re debating how to jack up their demands…

  9. I think this phenom is part of the answer but not the whole thing. It seems to me possible that on some dim level, people also understand that the Republicans don’t have a very good reason for what they’re doing. There’s no good story for it.

  10. It’s remarkably akin to all the polls showing that Americans hate Congress more than they hate the Black Death, Grease Fires or Nickleback, then go on to routinely return 90-95% of their supposedly reviled congressional representatives to office.

    1. You have to have all the marketing power money can buy to be so successful with a fundamentally defective product like the average Congresscritter.

    2. It isn’t that remarkable if you look at the built-in bias towards both reelection and conservationism. Particularly for the House, the real election is the primary. Almost all House districts are safe for the general election and that’s been especially so after the massive gerrymandering of 2009-2010. Also, rural areas (which are typically extremely conservative) are grossly overrepresented in Congress and in the Electoral College. The Democrats typically win much more of the popular vote election after election—it’s the built-in structural inequities that are keeping the GOP alive.

      What’s more, the seeming contradiction between most people disliking Congress as a whole while consistently returning their own Congresspersons might make intuitive sense but it isn’t really contradictory at all. For example, I think Congress is much too conservative, extraordinarily dysfunctional and generally corrupt. So I have a very low opinion of Congress. Nevertheless, I like my representative and faithfully vote to return him every two years. Wouldn’t think of doing otherwise. I feel the same way about one of my state’s senators, Barbara Boxer. The other senator, I vote for because she’s a Democrat.

      I probably have counterparts in, say, Texas, who see things exactly the same as I do, except inversely. Nevertheless, the structural inequities in the way that House and Senate seats are allocated means that it is possible for most Americans to have a very negative view of Congress generally, even as they are largely pleased with the Representatives and Senators who represent their particular districts or states. The problem isn’t that the American people are confused, it’s that the Constitution makes it possible for a small but well-entrenched minority to be represented in Congress far beyond their actual numbers.

      Those same structural inequities are also why the most conservative Republicans don’t seem to be panicking today. The GOP’s House members are now almost all in safe, extremely conservative district where most of the so-called “moderates” wouldn’t ever consider voting for a Democrat, which means that House Republicans need only fear a challenge from the right. The GOP’s Senators are likewise almost entirely from their Southern stronghold (mainly the eleven states of the former CSA) and a handful of outliers mainly from sparsely populated, very conservative Western states such as Wyoming.

      Realistically, no matter how unpopular the GOP is among the bulk of the country’s populace it would take massive wave elections in both 2014 and 2016 to switch control of the House and, unless some Democratic Senators change their priorities, the GOP’s Southern rump gives them an effective veto over national policy for at least the foreseeable future. That’s also why I make it even money that the GOP can’t, won’t walk away without winning at least something and won’t deal away the possibility of future hostage taking, no matter what.

      (Which is also why the system of an elected president from one party versus a highly disciplined parliamentary style political party of a different stripe—particularly one as ideologically extreme as today’s GOP—with no possibility of calling an election is a recipe for something like the fall of the Weimar Republic).

      1. I’m not sure the Republicans really qualify as a “highly disciplined … political party”. A highly disciplined political party is not run by a minority of extremists.

        It seems to me that we are in our current straits because Boehner thinks he is Speaker of the GOP rather than Speaker of the House of Representatives. He apparently likes being third in line for the Presidency and won’t act in a way that will jeopardize his Speakership, such as it is. Power exists to be used. We hope it’s used in a constructive fashion, but it’s there to be used for good or ill.

        Boehner has said publicly and privately that a default by the Treasury would be a disaster. He knows what must be done, and yet he refuses to do it. Perhaps it’s time for a Kennedy to write Profiles in Cowardice. It could start with Roger Taney and the Dred Scott decision. Then we could move on to Jesse Thomas and the Missouri Compromise. Boehner is merely the last chapter in a long line of short-sighted American political figures.

        1. Why can’t political extremists be well-organized and highly disciplined? But also, Boehner says it would be a disaster to default but only in the context of also saying that Obama and the Democrats should give him and his fellow Republicans some or all of what they want so as to avoid the disaster. As you say, power exists to be used and Boehner and the Republicans seem to be using theirs far more effectively than you are willing to acknowledge. It’s true that they might not win all they want or any win anything at all but their preparations (chiefly gerrymandering and aggressively remaking state government as soon as they take over in a particular state and, most notably, their constant willingness to disregard established norms) and their willingness to ruthlessly exploit all of the choke points our creaky constitutional system and inbreed village culture have made available to them tells me that you are seriously underestimating them.

          As things stand now, a “win” for the Democrats would basically be retaining the Ryan budget. An outright “loss” would mean what, exactly, for the Republicans? The Ryan budget stands? They might not ultimately stand to win much today but the parameters are structured so that they can’t lose anything either. And you might want to bear in mind that the greatest “victory” envisioned by the Democrats is that we get a clear budget that lasts for about two months. Then we’re going to be faced with the same situation all over again.

          1. Mitch,

            I agree: the extremists are well-organized. But that does not make them a “parliamentary style political party.” A parliamentary-style political party follows its leadership on crucial votes. The teahadis are defying their leadership.

            In a parliamentary system, the extremists would take control of the party (if they could) or bring down the government (if they can’t take control of the party). The teahadis pretty clearly can’t take control of the GOoP leadership — or else they would have. But the rest of the GOoP caucus is complicit in that they are refusing to (metaphorically) spank this rump group.

            Are they wielding their power effectively? Although I agree that they are wielding it, I don’t think they are wielding it effectively. How can they wield it effectively when they don’t even know what it is they want. What we have in D.C. today are a bunch of nominal adults entrusted with much more power than they should be trusted with. They are behaving like petulant children. In a fair universe, they would be treated as petulant children are treated. Someone needs to explain their failings, spank them, and send them to their room.

            Where is the angry patriarchal Sky God when you need him?

  11. “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.”

    I don’t really see that to be the case. I think you’re giving a little too much credit to the sincerity of the GOP outrage against aspects of the shutdown, and their alleged empathy for those affected. To me, it mostly comes across as a political ploy/trolling rather than a discovery of the importance of certain aspects of government. It seems like a pretty transparent effort to score political points by forcing the president/Democrats in Congress to make tough votes against popular measures (like reopening the memorials).

    I do think the general principle is true, however, in relation to how people in the abstract tend to oppose big government/spending/entitlements more than they would oppose individual examples of these programs that benefit them (or someone close to them).

  12. Keith, I think that you’re wrong here. The primary attribute is that these people eagerly grab all government spending for themselves, but whine about money going to anybody else.

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