Cognitive dissonance, the Global Financial Crisis and the discipline of economics

Published on real-world economics review, issue no. 53, 17 pdf pages, by Adam Kessler [Fairleigh Dickinson University, USA],  27 September 2010.

Abstract: The global financial and economic crisis has produced a powerful shock to the worldview of an influential group of economists whom I call believers in laissez faire (BLF). I provide evidence which suggests that the BLF responded to this shock in a manner that can best be described as irrational, ill-considered and clearly erroneous. I consider the social-psychological concept cognitive dissonance as the best explanatory framework for understanding this response. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that when real-world events “disconfirm” deeply-held beliefs this creates psychological discomfort in persons and they will respond by means of distortion and denial.

I test the proposition that the BLF experienced cognitive dissonance through a survey in which I asked two groups of economists what their views were on 10 possible causes of the Great Recession. One group consisted of the signers of the notorious open letter circulated by the Cato Institute opposing President Obama’s stimulus program. (I consider members of this group to be self-proclaimed BLFs.) The second group consisted of a random sample of members of the American Economics Association. One of the possible causes I listed on the survey is the U.S. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. The notion that the CRA is a major cause of the crisis apparently has great resonance among the BLF but is demonstrably false. Among other results, 46% of the signers of the letter believe that the CRA was one of three top causes of the crisis compared to 12% of the “other” economists. I conclude that the BLF exhibit symptoms to cognitive dissonance.

… (full long 17 pdf-pages text).

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