What people want and what they are: religious edition

Shankar Vedantam’s “Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?” dovetails with my theory of why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: a lot of it is actually about signaling values:

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.
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Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They’ll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

And if you ask Americans about their sexual habits, you also find that straight women consistently report fewer partners than men; the most fascinating study on this subject, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” finds that women who believe their answers about sexual histories will be observed report the fewest partners, while those who believe they are hooked up a lie-detector (which actually does nothing) report the most—a number that puts them on par with the men in the study. The men’s answers do not change much. In both the case of religion and sexuality, “questions of identity” may be at stake. In the case of religion, as I note above, I suspect that religion becomes closer to a political question for many people, and political questions often aren’t really about the costs or benefits or desirability of the policy at hand. They’re about what the person espousing an opinion believes about themselves.

Or, as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Richard Feynman noted this tendency in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. A princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies: “On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”

That was the end of his discussion with the princess. But I think Feynman is on to something, and that something has to do with how people use political issues as means to show their values. Since very few people will change their fundamental values over a short period of time (if they ever will), arguing with most people about Republicans and Democrats (or whatever) is usually not about policy, but about belief.

Since picking up on this idea, I’ve become far less interested in political arguments, which are often cover for values arguments, and it’s very hard to change people’s fundamental values. Unless people acknowledge that political and religious debates are often about values, instead of the surface phenomena being discussed, you won’t get good conversation. This is probably one reason why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: no one will even acknowledge what it’s actually about!

And maybe Americans adopted religious status, as Vedantam has it, because we don’t have as many inborn status markers, as Andrew Potter notes in The Authenticity Hoax:

When most people think of status, they think of the rigid class structures of old Europe. In contrast, North America is considered to be a relatively classless society. Sure, we have various forms of inequality, income being the most obvious and socially pernicious, but we have no entrenched class structure, no aristocracy that enjoys its privileges explicitly by virtue of birth, not merit. Nevertheless, urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on the face of the Earth. The reason we don’t recognized this fact is that most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not, depending on the status markers that are in play) be able to move either up or down.

Now, in contrast, Potter sees that hierarchy as “obsolete,” since we now focus more on being “cool” or alternative, not driven solely by money, and known more for what we like than what we have. Forms of status change, but status doesn’t. The “rigid class structures of old Europe” might not apply, but the somewhat rigid ideals of religion might still, even if we’re still shifting towards consumption and opinions as status markers. Religion often functions basically as an opinion—or an “identity.” And people will not readily alter their identity—except for me, of course, because my identity is built around being able to alter my identity.

I’m still not sure why people glom onto politics and religion to signal their identities, but I think Feynman is on the right track: we like things that are large and complex enough that only a very small number of experts can really afford to even understand the domain but that nonetheless lend themselves to sloganeering and the like.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about « The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: Tyler Cowen, Bad Religion, and contemporary religious practice « The Story's Story

  3. Pingback: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about « The Story's Story

  4. Pingback: Tyler Cowen, Bad Religion, and contemporary religious practice « The Story's Story

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