The cool, logical thinking of economics would at first glance seem as far removed from the hot emotions of hatred and racism as it can get. But think again. According to Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard University, politicians often decide to spread hate-creating stories about a group they wish to exclude from state spending in order to discredit opponents whose policies would benefit that group. According to this logic, egalitarians may foment hatred against rich minorities, whereas redistribution opponents may seek to build hatred against poor minorities. Glaeser, who presented his thoughts at a recent IMF seminar, even thinks that economics can help explain hatred of blacks in the U.S. South, the genocide of Jews, and the recent surge of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. “An economic model of hatred can use the economic focus on incentives and equilibrium to create predictions about where we should expect to see outbreaks of hatred,” he writes.
According to Glaeser, psychology—the discipline traditionally tasked with studying emotions such as hatred and discrimination—will get you only so far in understanding the dynamics of those feelings in politics because it is centered mainly on the individual. “If psychology has improved economics by giving us a richer understanding of the individual, then perhaps economics can improve psychology by giving it a better understanding of the market.”
Glaeser argues that truth is seldom relevant to hatred. Hatred relies on people accepting, rather than investigating, stories about crimes committed by the “out” group. “The central lesson is that hatred is always built with stories of past and future crime of the object in question,” he says, adding that it is “political divisions that create the incentives to build hatred.” To illustrate that hatred often is driven more by effective storytelling than fact, Glaeser points to a recent survey of anti-Americanism around the world.
In Vietnam, a country with which the United States was at war 30-40 years ago, less than 4 percent of the population hold a “very negative view” of the United States. In contrast, anti-American feelings in Argentina run high (23 percent expressed a “very unfavorable opinion”), and seem to be rooted in a tendency of local politicians blaming outside actors (such as the IMF, as well as the United States), for the recent economic crisis and ensuing hardship. In Argentina, the United States is politically relevant; in Vietnam, it is not, even though history would suggest the Vietnamese have more reason to hold a grudge against Americans than the Argentines, Glaeser said.
Truth does not always prevail
Glaeser’s research holds an important lesson for anyone wanting to influence public opinion. Repetition is key to disseminating a message, whether that message is false or true. Unless people have a strong incentive to seek out the truth— and in politics, they don’t because there are few tangible costs associated with voting for the “wrong” person or party—they won’t. Groups hurt by a negative message would, therefore, do better to actively counter these messages than to think that the truth will automatically prevail.
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