Ignorance and Faith in Government

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

A new study suggests that the more people know about a social problem, the less faith they have in government to solve it. Sounds good so far, right?

The problem is that most people deal with this by choosing to remain ignorant.

Through a series of five studies conducted in 2010 and 2011 with 511 adults in the United States and Canada, the researchers described “a chain reaction from ignorance about a subject to dependence on and trust in the government to deal with the issue.”

In one study, participants who felt most affected by the economic recession avoided information challenging the government’s ability to manage the economy. However, they did not avoid positive information, the study said.

To test the links among dependence, trust and avoidance, researchers provided either a complex or simple description of the economy to a group of 58 Canadians, mean age 42, composed of 20 men and 38 women. The participants who received the complex description indicated higher levels of perceived helplessness in getting through the economic downturn, more dependence on and trust in the government to manage the economy, and less desire to learn more about the issue.

“This is despite the fact that, all else equal, one should have less trust in someone to effectively manage something that is more complex,” said co-author Aaron C. Kay, PhD, of Duke University. “Instead, people tend to respond by psychologically ‘outsourcing’ the issue to the government, which in turn causes them to trust and feel more dependent on the government. Ultimately, they avoid learning about the issue because that could shatter their faith in the government.”

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20 Responses to “Ignorance and Faith in Government”

  1. #1 |  Chris Rhodes | 

    In other words: “Why worry? I’m sure the government has their top men working on the problem.”

  2. #2 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    Given the public response to those who try to debunk the “human trafficking” hysteria, this isn’t the least bit surprising.

  3. #3 |  Marty | 

    I’m never in any studies. Who are these people that make us intelligent people look bad?!!

  4. #4 |  Gary | 

    I’m not sure the study reached the correct conclusion; specifically I don’t agree that “one should have less trust in someone to effectively manage something that is more complex”.

    Yes, the more complex something is, the harder it is to manage, but people who are trained experts in a specific field are going to be better equipped to manage complex situations than a lay-person. This is a pretty uncontroversial thing to say when politics isn’t involved; I am certainly going to trust a nuclear physicist more than myself to operate a nuclear power plant.

    So I think that this studies conclusions just follow from whatever the person’s preexisting beliefs are. If the person believed that the government is filled with competent experts, of course they are going to trust the government to handle complex problems. If the person believed that government is filled with incompetent buffoons, then they aren’t going to trust it.

    But that doesn’t explain why the people had that preexisting trust or lack thereof to begin with.

  5. #5 |  Radley Balko | 

    So I think that this studies conclusions just follow from whatever the person’s preexisting beliefs are. If the person believed that the government is filled with competent experts, of course they are going to trust the government to handle complex problems. If the person believed that government is filled with incompetent buffoons, then they aren’t going to trust it.

    I think there’s a big difference between running a nuclear power plant and, say, running a health care system or food distribution system for 300 million people. Even if the government were staffed with the most brilliant minds in the country, I don’t think they could design a system that’s more efficient than one that evolves from voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange. They may be able to design a decent safety net that catches the people who slip through, but there are some things too complex for humans–even very smart ones–to anticipate and plan.

  6. #6 |  Bob | 

    I think it comes down to cognitive dissonance.

    The more you understand a social problem, the more you realize that there simply is no magic bullet fix, and that the only solution is to do nothing at all… I.E. Let the people fix it themselves through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange.

    Where the cognitive dissonance comes in is in people’s unwillingness to throw people that won’t or can’t play by those rules under the bus, as it were.

  7. #7 |  Dana Gower | 

    @#5 …but there are some things too complex for humans–even very smart ones–to anticipate and plan.

    When I was in college, I was always impressed with how well laid out the sidewalks were. They went off in all directions, but were always the simplest way to get wherever you wanted to go. I finally asked about it and was told that when the campus was built, they built the buildings and planted grass. Wherever the grass was trampled, that’s where they built the sidewalks.

  8. #8 |  Juice | 

    Sounds like Jon Stewart’s observation that the more a Republican candidate knows about a subject the more sane and the less authoritarian they are about it.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/jon-stewart-gop-candidates-sane-ideas_n_1094530.html

  9. #9 |  Brandon | 

    Is this why government schools are so effective at keeping people thoughtless and ignorant?

  10. #10 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    “Instead, people tend to respond by psychologically ‘outsourcing’ the issue to the government, which in turn causes them to trust and feel more dependent on the government. Ultimately, they avoid learning about the issue because that could shatter their faith in the government.”

    I’m not at all suprised by this conclusion. There are many examples of this line of thought in action.

    For instance, why do people in fucked up ghettos who experience, ahem, “high discretion tactics” from police on a regular basis suddenly become huge backers of law enforcement when it comes to gun control? Residents of these same ghetto hamlets spew venom about government police all day long, but when they come into contact with a private security officer, they get indignant because that private officer “ain’t the real POHleece” and allegedly “can’t do nothin’.” The people who have been fucked over the most by the state are, too often, its most dedicated defenders when faced with private alternatives to state intervention. It reminds me a lot of Stockholm Syndrome, actually.

  11. #11 |  John Regan | 

    You deal with this in jury selection all the time, and the fact is there’s no getting away from it. If you’re doing criminal defense, there are limits to how much you can expect the jury to accept. Some of the worst government offenses, then, if committed boldly and shamelessly succeed because people don’t want to believe that government officials are capable of such things.

    Such as, for example, when the whole prosecution is a frame up job.

  12. #12 |  CyniCAl | 

    Helmut is spot-on. This is Stockholm Syndrome crossed with Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief.

    Interestingly, there is a system that can manage a complex population with nearly infinite variables. It is called anarchy. But no one will try that because they want to make sure violence happens to the other guy, never themselves. Problem is, violence is inescapable and magnified a million-fold by the State, so you wind up a victim anyway.

    So, yeah, great study. Next up: the study that proves the sky is blue and other incredibly obvious things.

  13. #13 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    CyniCAL:

    Thanks for supporting my conclusion. With regard to anarchy, I will just say I’m agnostic on that. Labels make me nervous at this point. If forced to label myself, I would probably go for “Left-libertarian.” But, I will say that I have warmed up to the market anarchist view quite a bit lately. And our past discussions have certainly played a part in that. Thanks and nice to correspond again, CyniCAL.

  14. #14 |  perlhaqr | 

    Speaking of “Faith in government”…

    http://i44.tinypic.com/2unysjo.jpg

  15. #15 |  Gary | 

    Radley, you’re missing my point. I’m not arguing with you about whether humans are capable of running a health care system. I’m arguing about a point of logic regarding “rational behavior” versus “correct behavior”. Note that acting rationally does NOT necessarily imply correctness.

    The professor in the study said ““one should have less trust in someone to effectively manage something that is more complex”. I don’t believe that’s logically true. If you believe that someone else is more competent than you in a particular area, you will be more likely to trust them *relative* to yourself to solve a more complex problem in that area. You might overall have less confidence in ANYONE’S ability to solve the problem. But if forced to trust someone to do it, you’re going to trust whoever you think is most competent.

    Hence my point that a person’s preexisting bias towards government is going to determine whether or not they trust government to solve complex problems. So if you think that government is filled with a diverse group of competent thinkers, you’re going to trust it to solve complex problems.

    That doesn’t mean that your trust is *correct*, just that it is rational.

    Yes, I am making an obscure point, sorry. :)

  16. #16 |  JOR | 

    Actually, I’m pretty sure that state management can make society work perfectly well for the state’s purposes (just as engineers or whatever can make things work for their own purposes). The real reason to doubt they can solve ‘society’s’ or ‘the economy’s’ problems is that, one, that isn’t possible (society has no concentrated interests in the first place; to serve some interests just is to oppose and damage others), and two, there’s nothing harmonizing their interests with those of ‘society’ or ‘the economy’, whatever that is. Expert rulers would simply be expert at using society for their own purposes, and probably do more harm to more people than less competent rulers.

  17. #17 |  JohnJ | 

    I believe the term for this in the Soviet Union was “doublethink”.

  18. #18 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @5 – Right, running a nuclear plant is a SHITLOAD harder, you need to follow a strict process for *everything*. The other process’s main issues are scale, but implementation is from local experts, which makes the systems a LOT less complex.

  19. #19 |  Consumatopia | 

    There’s a bunch of studies that keep coming out that claim conservatives are somehow neurologically inferior or damaged compared to liberals. Those studies are always nonsense, and I’m always kind of disappointed how many liberals get suckered into them.

    I think this is pretty much the same thing, for the reasons Gary offered. In this study, you either think the more complicated something is, the more we should trust the market to take care of it, or you’re somehow irrational. Basically, everyone rational must have total faith in the invisible hand.

    The strangest part of this is that you seem to expect people to have MORE faith in the invisible hand when they hear more about the recession. I would say that a recession is when the invisible hand shows the LEAST evidence of working effectively.

    Note that your first sentence summarizing the results isn’t quite correct–people who read the more complex decision felt “more dependence on and trust in the government to manage the economy”–that doesn’t sound like having less faith in the government.

  20. #20 |  Nate | 

    Wish I’d been here last week to say “Bible”

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