Observing how radical political ideas had become mainstream in only a few years, in 1888 the Victorian politician Sir William Harcourt is supposed to have said "we are all socialists now." Yesterday's agreement on a plan to cut the U.S. deficit illustrates the same process, though the movement is in the opposite direction: Though Democrats control the Presidency and the U.S. Senate and polls say the public prefers their "balanced" approach, the plan is largely about cutting back on Government spending. We are all anti-government conservatives now. And an interesting psychological question is: Why? What makes people more fearful of government debt than of, say, the consequences of a lousy educational system or shuttered libraries or ramshackle roads and bridges?
We know that people are biased to fear tangible losses more than the sacrifice of some future gain. If you're the typical person limned in behavioral-economics experiments, you'll be much more alert to the pain of losing something you already have (and hence to the notion that it will be painful to pay our share of the federal debt) than to the future costs of forgoing something that you don't possess (like, say, a highly educated workforce in 2035). But these phenomena have been measured with respect to personal experience (experiments have involved tickets to basketball games and imaginary vacations). Why do people transfer their intuitions about personal conduct to the nation's?
One reason might be the effect of rhetoric. To make the issue comprehensible, politicians and lobbyists of all stripes favor homey analogies that invite people to see the nation as a single person, or a family. ("There is simply too much debt on America's credit card," President Obama said last month, using an analogy much favored by journalists and pundits.) "Every family has to balance its budget," is the claim, so deficit spending is inherently unsustainable and wrong.
It doesn't take much thought to discern that this analogy is false. The Federal government has an impact on the economy, and a role to play in protecting its people, that make it unlike a person or a household. As Binyamin Appelbaum and Catherine Rampell explain here, the economy is not in any condition to be whacked the drop in demand that will follow from reductions in Federal money (which is why the harshest cuts are supposed to come later, after a much-hoped-for recovery). Most economists, they write—not bomb-throwing socialists or MoveOn email zombies, but economists—"say the government should have waited a year or more for the economy to strengthen."
So why did we Americans just collectively make the mistake of thinking about the national government as if it were a person? Some of the blame may be our innate psychology, which inclines us to treat collections of individuals as if they were one entity. If you think about it logically, after all, it's rather strange to say "China still resents what Japan did in World War II" or "Germany doesn't want to bail out Greece" or "Google is going after Facebook's social-network niche," when entities like China and Greece and Google are made up of many people, each one thinking her or his own thoughts, often not much concerned with Japan or Facebook.
To talk about China or Facebook having emotions, thoughts and plans is to see a collection of people as a single person. This propensity seems to be innate and easily triggered—something that happens without conscious thought, in fact, in spite of conscious thought. In that, this mental process seems to be like the nigh-irresistible habit of attributing thoughts and feelings to objects. If you've ever cursed a car that refused to start, or felt affection for your loyal old laptop, you've experienced the human mind's propensity to feel that there's a sensitive mind in every object that matters. ("Feel," of course, is not "think." Feeling that your car is out to spite you is largely automatic and outside your control, which is why you can simultaneously know that it's an inanimate object and kick it hard in its stupid front tire.)
In a famous 1944 experiment, the psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Anne Simmel showed people this short film of moving shapes (a circle and two triangles), and found that most saw thoughts, plans and emotions—"the circle got pushed around by that big triangle, but then the other one saved her."
Similarly, when we certain cues in a collection of people, we easily perceive that group as if it were a single living entity. As this paper describes, the psychologists Paul Bloom and Csaba Veres once showed a version of the Heider-Simmel film to 96 undergraduates in which each of the three moving shapes was replaced by a group of five tiny objects that moved together. Like people who had seen the earlier film, these students interpreted the abstract shapes as having desires and experiences. But they attributed those mental states not to each individual object but to each group. They didn't talk about 15 separate actors, but three. These students described each character as a group and referred to each as "they," yet something told them not to bother describing each individual—that, instead, the place to look for thoughts and feelings was at the level of the group.
Our ability to conceive of groups as if they were individuals often serves us well, of course. But it makes us vulnerable to analogies that don't make much sense. We are moving now towards a shabbier, meaner and less fair society, and toward more economic trouble, partly because we have a hard time keeping in mind that a government is different from a person.
Bloom, P., & Veres, C. (1999). The perceived intentionality of groups Cognition, 71 (1) DOI: 10.1016/S0010-0277(99)00014-1