Thursday, January 14, 2010

Guilt as an Institution

There are many "non-economic" choices we make every day. Yet economic thinking provides insights to these choices. And these insights help us understand what we do. That point was brought home by this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education (HT to Arts & Letters Daily).

Many of our choices are the result of feelings we have - whether they be guilt, pride, or whatever - and the feelings are, in part, the result of our socialization process as we mature. And the feelings become integrated into our beliefs. These beliefs help form the institutional structure that helps us make choices - some economic, some "non-economic". The beliefs are some of the "rules" that influence our decisions, whether it is how we act while waiting in line, as explained in the article, to how we view other social and cultural issues.

The article even redirected my thinking to Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the role of his "impartial spectator."  While I don't think we can connect that role to guilt, it is possible to connect to our desire to seek approval of others, which is alluded to in the article.

I think the article can help us explore the role of beliefs as institutions, and the influence they can have on our decision-making. Please share your thoughts.


Mike Fladlien said...

I wonder if an elasticity component could be used to capture social institutions like guilt. Suppose demand, simply derived, is equal to 10-2Q + x1 where "x1" are all factors that influence demand.

Tim Schilling said...

I'm not sure you can quantify the institutional effects. (That doesn't mean people won't try.) Institutions change, albeit sometime very slowly.

Additionally, the institutions that influence you are very likely different from those that influence me.