Perceptions of Scarcity & Responsibility inform Budget Negotiations

I was recently asked about the psychology of scarcity and it gave me an excuse to revisit an old paper by Skitka and Tetlock (1992, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) that contains a more complex version of the model I depict below.  Like many who are interested in politics, I’ve been following the recent budget debates with interest.  Beyond the issue specific partisanship (e.g. defunding NPR or Planned Parenthood), there is the larger issue of how much government can afford to provide a social safety net.  As the simplified model based on this paper argues, the desire to help others is based in large part on appraisals of how scarce resources are and how deserving people are of those resources.

This is basically common sense, but the interesting part is when we combine the model with research suggesting that conservatives are more likely than liberals to react to threats and avoid negative outcomes, suggesting that in the first decision box, even given the same facts, conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that scarce resources(e.g. the budget deficit) are likely to lead to ruin and therefore cut public assistance.  For example, this  might explain why a recent Pew Research Poll found that Republicans feel that the deficit is a bigger economic priority than adding more jobs (37% vs 22%), while the numbers were reversed for Democrats (41% think jobs is the most important economic concern vs. 15% for the deficit).

Further, when you get to the second decision box (appraising deservingness), conservatives are more likely to attribute success and failure to internal-controllable causes vs. liberals.  For example, this is a graph of data and you’ll notice that conservatives are more likely to attribute their success at work and in relationships to effort (an internal-controllable trait) versus ability (internal, but not necessarily controllable) or context/luck (external).  This attributional divide has been documented in other published research.

When you combine these two factors, it is no surprise that liberals and conservatives have very different ideas about a social safety net.  Each group may be psychologically predisposed to believing in more or less scarcity and more or less personal responsibility for outcomes, even given the same information about the world.

These dispositions may actually also cause people to be more liberal or conservative, or to support such policies, as research on mortality salience has succeeded in increasing support for conservative candidates.  There is a lack of research on causes of liberalism, but anecdotally, Michael Moore recently told a liberal audience that “America is not broke.” and in my anecdotal experience of religion, one of the main principles of many liberal churches is the idea that we need to think of the world as full of abundance, not scarcity.  The ironic thing is that just when people need help most (conditions of scarcity) and Keynesian economics would suggest we should spend more, the psychology of the situation predisposes us to be less generous.  Of course, that’s from my liberal point of view, where I’m predisposed to such beliefs.

- Ravi Iyer

ps If anyone knows of studies where an abundance mentality leads to liberal beliefs, I’d love to hear from you.



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