Personality, Culture and Economics: The Psychology of Preference Formation in Polarized America

04.11.2013 - 12:00
Location : 
A 5,6 Raum A 231
Type of Event : 
AB B-Kolloquium
Prof. Howard Lavine
Lecturer affiliation: 
University of Minnesota

Many observers of American politics claim that sociocultural issues have now supplanted traditional economic concerns – those related to the balance of public and market forces, taxation, and social welfare policies – on the public agenda. However, evidence from standard voting models indicates that voters continue to attach more electoral weight to taxes and spending than to abortion, gay marriage and school prayer, and public opinion polls indicate that the economy and economic issues remain the primary focus of political debate and public concern. In this book project, my colleagues and I argue that the rise of cultural division at the elite level has not displaced economic issues on the public agenda (as in Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas); rather, it has shaped economic preferences by fundamentally altering the basis of partisan sorting, political information seeking, and delegation. We examine the hypothesis – obscured in past work by untenable assumptions and a lack of interdisciplinary communication and theory – that mass preferences on economic issues are endogenous to a basic cultural division in the electorate, and therefore endogenous to core individual differences in personality. A key component of our analysis is that the nature, meaning, and normative implications of economic preferences depend critically on political engagement. In particular, we hypothesize that among the engaged, who are regularly exposed to party messages that assign cultural meaning to economic positions (e.g., “Obamacare is socialism”) economic preferences serve a symbolic function; they express partisan and cultural affiliation. By contrast, among the unengaged, who are less likely to receive such messages, economic preferences serve an instrumental function; they reflect the extent to which one desires government protection from the risks and uncertainties associated with free-market capitalism.