Sunday, January 18, 2015

How long will the "Clash of Civilizations" last?

My main reason for re-visiting Samuel Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” published in 1993, was to see how Huntington’s thesis is faring these days, in the light of the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism and the rise of Islamic state.

Is such violence attributable to an ongoing clash of values that will always make followers of Islam hostile to Western culture, or is a temporary phenomenon that is likely to gradually diminish as economic opportunities expand in Islamic countries?

In his Foreign Affairs, Huntington “set forth the hypotheses that”:
  • “differences  between civilizations are real and important”;
  • “civilization-consciousness is increasing”;
  • “conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict”;
  • “international relations … will increasingly … become a game in which non-Western civilizations are actors and not simply objects”;
  • “successful political, security and economic international institutions are more likely to develop within civilizations than across civilizations”;
  • “conflicts between groups in different civilizations will become more frequent, more sustained, and more violent than conflicts between groups in the same civilization”;
  • “violent conflicts between groups in different civilizations are the most likely and most dangerous source of escalation that could lead to global wars;
  • “the paramount axis of world politics will be the relations between ‘the West and the Rest’;
  • “the elites in some torn non-Western countries will try to make their countries part of the West, but in most cases face major obstacles to accomplishing this; and
  • “a central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states”.

As far as I can remember I was not particularly impressed by Huntington’s thesis at the time it was published. I am still not over-impressed. His labelling of cultures as “civilizations” seems to exaggerate the differences between cultures. I disagree with his view that the “notion that there could be a ‘universal civilization’ is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies”. As I have explained on this blog, it seems to me that there would be widespread agreement among people from different cultural backgrounds about the characteristics of a good society.

However, I have to admit that many of Huntington’s hypotheses look as though they are standing up fairly well in terms of the experience of the last couple of decades. He was spot-on target in pointing out that Western intervention in particular Islamic countries, such as Iraq, would unite other Islamic countries in opposition to the West, even though he did under-estimate the importance of conflict between nations/groups within broad cultural groupings. It is now obvious that he was correct in claiming: “The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe”.

Huntington’s also made some accurate predictions about developments in Russia. His prediction that conditions did not exist for Russia to join the West was accurate. The people in Russia were divided on the issue and the West was wary of embracing Russia. Similarly, he was correct in predicting that relations between Russia and the West “could again become distant and conflictual”, if Russians rejected liberal democracy and began behaving like authoritarian traditionalists.

Huntington was wrong in his prediction that the cultural similarities between Russia and Ukraine would enable those countries to avoid violent conflict over territory, but that error could be attributed to a faulty application of his theory.  His discussion of how Russia was torn between the West and traditional Russian cultural influences can also be applied to Ukraine. The difference is that favourable conditions exist for Ukraine to join the West, even though it is being badly torn in the process.

The main problem I have with Huntington’s thesis is that it pays too little attention to the processes of social change. It seems to imply that countries like Turkey will always be torn between Western influences and traditional cultural influences. It largely overlooks the cultural changes (discussed here) that have occurred in the West, and increasingly in other parts of the world, as economic development has led to the growth of emancipative values such as those supporting freedom of speech.

Most people in the West seem to be able to manage to support emancipative values these days, despite the fact that only a few generations ago many of their religious leaders were violently opposed to such values. It seems reasonable to expect that a similar transition toward adoption of emancipative values will occur in Islamic countries during this century. It is difficult to predict exactly how this might happen, except that it is unlikely to be assisted by Western intervention. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What is missing from "Mind,Society and Behavior"?

Photo: Kim Yeul / EgyptThere is no prize for any reader who suggests that there is a “u” missing from “behavior”.

Mind, Society and Behavior is the title of World Development Report 2015, recently published by the World Bank. The title of the report is intended to capture
“the idea that paying attention to how humans think (the processes of mind) and how history and context shape thinking (the influence of society) can improve the design and implementation of development policies and interventions that target human choice and action (behaviour)".

The main point that the report seems to be making is that policy outcomes depend on psychological and social influences as well as economic incentives.

The report argues that it is important to take account of three different kinds of thinking:
  • Automatic thinking causes us to simplify problems and base decisions on associations that automatically come to mind. This means that policy outcomes can depend heavily on the framing of choices (the way information is provided) and default options.
  • Social thinking causes behaviour to be influenced by social preferences, networks, identities and norms. These influences can lead societies into self-reinforcing patterns of behaviour, which may be highly desirable (e.g. norms of loan repayment) or undesirable (e.g. a culture of corruption).
  • Thinking with mental models involves concepts, stories and views of how the world works which influence our understanding of what is possible, what is right and what governments should do. An example cited in the report is that people from disadvantaged groups can have mental models that cause them to under-estimate their own abilities.

The report draws upon a substantial amount of research which establishes the relevance of these different types of thinking to policy issues. I am probably more familiar than most readers would be with the underlying research in psychology, behavioural economic and institutional economics that is referred to in this report. However, it was interesting to see how the authors were able to draw on an impressive array of relevant research related to poverty, child development, household finance, productivity, health and climate change.

Anyone with an interest in economic development is likely to find the overview of the report interesting and easy to read. I read the whole report, but it took a long time because I kept finding more interesting things to do. The report seems to have been prepared by bureaucrats to be read by bureaucrats. As I was reading, I could not help thinking that while psychology and sociology do influence behaviour, we should not overlook the importance of pecuniary incentives. I find this kind of report easier to read when I am being paid.

I found the tone of the report to be slightly irritating, but I suppose it is difficult not to appear to have superior wisdom when discussing biases in decision-making of ordinary people. The tone in the rest of the report is balanced somewhat by a chapter which discusses the biases of development professionals in the World Bank. The chapter notes, among other things, that predictions by development professionals grossly understated the extent to which poor people in selected developing countries perceive themselves to be in control of their own lives and grossly overstated the extent to which these people perceive themselves to be helpless in dealing with life’s problems.

There is a major omission in this report, in my view. Any discussion of the influence of cognitive bias in decision-making on economic development should take into account the influence of bias in the mental models on economic development policies. There is no discussion of the deficiencies mental models that led to trade protectionism, widespread public ownership of business enterprises in many countries or the over-emphasis on the role of savings and capital investment in economic development. And there is no discussion of institutional arrangements for policy development that might help prevent biased views of how the economic growth process works from continuing to have a huge adverse impact on government policies in many parts of the world.

This report makes a useful contribution, but it could have been a lot better.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Does education make people happier?

There is conflicting evidence on the impact of education on happiness. Some studies show that higher educational qualifications have a positive impact on life satisfaction, while others show a negative impact.

One reason for the conflicting findings is the indirect nature of some of the positive contributions that education makes to life satisfaction. For example, education may contribute to life satisfaction by enabling people to earn higher incomes. Such indirect contributions are disregarded when researchers attempt to estimate the impact of education on life satisfaction by using single equation regression analysis to disentangle the impact of education from other factors such as income.

Some recent research by Nattavudh Powdthavee, Warn Lekfuangfu and Mark Wooden has applied a structural equation model to Australian data to estimate both the direct and indirect effects of education. The authors found that the positive indirect impacts of education on life satisfaction outweigh its negative direct impact (i.e. holding other things equal). The strongest positive indirect effect is via income, followed by long-term health.

These findings may provide some comfort to the providers of educational services. They can claim that education tends to enable people to have happier lives because it makes them to become wealthier and remain healthier.

However, the findings also suggest that young people seeking life satisfaction might achieve that goal to a greater extent if they can remain healthy and find a path to wealth that  does not involve a great deal of education.

Providers of education services might do better to argue that it is better to have a meaningful life rather than to have high levels of emotional well-being. Roy Baumeister has reported some research findings which suggest that although there is fairly high correlation between being happy and feeling that your life is meaningful, there are some important differences. For example, happiness is about the here and now, whereas meaningfulness seems to be more about assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story. It would be nice to think that education would help people to do that, but I have not seen that proposition tested against evidence.

Cartoon by Nicholson, originally published in "The Australian".

Providers of educational services may also be able to argue that the education experience itself is not the cause of unhappiness of educated people. A study by Michael Dockery, previously discussed on this blog, indicates that young people in Australia who experience higher education switch from having relatively high to relatively low levels of happiness (compared to others of the same age) at about the time they complete their degrees. There are several possible explanations for this, but the one I now favour is that young people compare themselves to a different reference group when they make the transition from higher education to work. When at university they are likely to compare their lifestyles to those of other members the undergraduate community, but after they gain employment they are more likely to compare their lifestyles with those of successful workmates.

If higher education tends to encourage people to compare their own achievements in life with those of other educated people, who tend to be high achievers, is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Do people value the happiness of their families above their own personal happiness?

One way to answer this kind of question is to ask people to choose between hypothetical situations with different ratings of family well-being and variables such as life satisfaction, ratings of life relative to best and worst possible, appreciation of life and absence of negative emotion. That is the approach taken in an exploratory study by Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Miles Kimball and Nichole Szembrot entitled, “Beyond Happiness and Satisfaction: Toward well-being indices based on stated preferences.

The people surveyed tended to indicate a stronger preference for options offering high “overall well-being to you and your family” than for any options regarding the 135 other aspects of well-being covered in the survey. The findings were based on an internet survey of 4,600 Americans.

The results help to explain why previous studies have shown that many people are prepared to sacrifice life satisfaction in order to obtain higher incomes.

Some of the other findings of the study are interesting:
  • Life satisfaction is ranked more highly than positive emotion (e.g. “how happy you feel”).
  • The absence of negative emotion, such as anger, stress, pain and worry tends to rank around the middle of aspects of well-being covered.
  • Eudaimonic dimensions of well-being, such as being a moral person and living according to personal values tend to rank highly.
  • Other aspects of personal well-being to be given a high ranking include health, the quality of family relationships, mental health and emotional stability, financial security and “having many options and possibilities in your life and the freedom to choose among them”.
  • Men tended to give higher ranking to “your sense that your life is meaningful and has value”, whereas women tend to rank more highly “your mental health and emotional stability”.
  • As regards policy options, greatest importance was attached to “freedom from corruption, injustice and abuse of power in your nation”, “the morality, ethics and goodness of other people in your nation” and “freedom of speech and people’s ability to take part in the political process and community life”.

The authors are at pains to point out the exploratory nature of their study and the many problems yet to be resolved in developing well-being indexes based on stated preferences. That might explain why some results that seem anomalous. For example, it is difficult to understand why “your rating on a ladder where the lowest rung is ‘worst possible life for you’ and the highest rung is ‘best possible life for you” is ranked far below “how satisfied you are with your life”( 103 versus 13). Previous research suggests that survey respondents view high ratings on those well-being indicators as close substitutes. Again, the ranking of “your material standard of living” (98) is much lower than the ranking of “your financial security” (6) and “your feeling that you have enough time and money for the things that are most important to you” (12).

My final comment on the study is that I was left wondering whether it might be possible to use a simpler approach to obtain useful indicators of well-being based on stated preferences. What I have in mind is to use each respondent’s current income and ratings of various other aspects of well-being as the initial basis for comparison and then asking them to choose between options involving various combinations of changes in income and other aspects of well-being. That might enable researchers to compare the marginal utility of different aspects of well-being in dollar terms and to map how preferences for different aspects of well-being tend to differ for people at different income levels.