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Identity, Dignity and Taboos: Beliefs as Assets

  • Roland Bénabou
  • Jean Tirole

We analyze social and economic phenomena involving beliefs which people value and invest in, for affective or functional reasons. Individuals are at times uncertain about their own deep values and infer them from their past choices, which then come to define who they are. Identity investments increase when information is scarce or when a greater endowment of some asset (wealth, career, family, culture) raises the stakes on viewing it as valuable (escalating commitments). Taboos against transactions or the mere contemplation of tradeoffs arise to protect fragile beliefs about the priceless value of certain assets (life, freedom, love, faith) or things one would never do. Whether such behaviors are welfare-enhancing or reducing depends on whether beliefs are sought for a functional value (sense of direction, self-discipline) or for mental consumption motives (self-esteem, anticipatory feelings). Escalating commitments can thus lead to a hedonic treadmill, and competing identities cause dysfunctional failures to invest in high-return activities (education, adapting to globalization, assimilation), or even the destruction of productive assets. In social interactions, norm violations elicit a forceful response (exclusion, harassment) when they threaten a strongly held identity, but further erode morale when it was initially weak. Concerns for pride, dignity or wishful thinking lead to the inefficient breakdown of Coasian bargaining even under symmetric information, as partners seek to self-enhance and shift blame by turning down insultingly low offers.

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Paper provided by Collegio Carlo Alberto in its series Carlo Alberto Notebooks with number 50.

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Length: 43 pages
Date of creation: 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:cca:wpaper:50
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  1. Oxoby, Robert J., 2003. "Attitudes and allocations: status, cognitive dissonance, and the manipulation of attitudes," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 52(3), pages 365-385, November.
  2. Wojciech Kopczuk & Joel Slemrod, 2005. "Denial of Death and Economic Behavior," NBER Working Papers 11485, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. John Smith, 2007. "Reputation, Social Identity and Social Conflict," Departmental Working Papers 200709, Rutgers University, Department of Economics.
  4. Rabin, Mathew, 1991. "Cognitive Dissonance and Social Change," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt37b169jt, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  5. Carrillo, Juan D & Mariotti, Thomas, 2000. "Strategic Ignorance as a Self-Disciplining Device," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 67(3), pages 529-44, July.
  6. Jackson, Matthew O. & Fryer Jr., Roland G., 2002. "Categorical Cognition: A Psychological Model of Categories and Identification in Decision Making," Working Papers 1144, California Institute of Technology, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
  7. Ulrich Horst & Alan Kirman & Miriam Teschl, 2006. "Changing Identity: The Emergence of Social Groups," Working Papers halshs-00410853, HAL.
  8. Wichardt, Philipp C., 2007. "Why and How Identity Should Influence Utility," Discussion Paper Series of SFB/TR 15 Governance and the Efficiency of Economic Systems 193, Free University of Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin, University of Bonn, University of Mannheim, University of Munich.
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