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Identity, Dignity and Taboos: Beliefs as Assets

  • Benabou, Roland

    ()

    (Princeton University)

  • Tirole, Jean

    ()

    (IDEI)

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 Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in its series IZA Discussion Papers with number 2583.

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Length: 43 pages
Date of creation: Jan 2007
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp2583
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  1. 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.
  2. Matthew Rabin., 1991. "Cognitive Dissonance and Social Change," Economics Working Papers 91-180, University of California at Berkeley.
  3. Ulrich Horst & Alan Kirman & Miriam Teschl, 2007. "Changing Identity: The Emergence of Social Groups," Economics Working Papers 0078, Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science.
  4. 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.
  5. Kopczuk Wojciech & Slemrod Joel, 2005. "Denial of Death and Economic Behavior," The B.E. Journal of Theoretical Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 5(1), pages 1-26, August.
  6. 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.
  7. John Smith, 2012. "Reputation, Social Identity and Social Conflict," Journal of Public Economic Theory, Association for Public Economic Theory, vol. 14(4), pages 677-709, 08.
  8. repec:oup:restud:v:67:y:2000:i:3:p:529-44 is not listed on IDEAS
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