How individual choices are constrained by social factors (including economic, legal, cultural, and structural) factors presented during Weeks 7-9.
In the contemporary U.S. an individual’s choice of partner – and related decisions about dating, sex, cohabitation, marriage, the division of household responsibilities, or remaining single – are typically understood as some of the most intimate, personal, decisions that one will make in a lifetime. Are they?
In this essay, consider the ways in which our individual “choices” are constrained by social (including economic, legal, cultural, and structural) factors presented during Weeks 7-9. How does the influence of these external forces shape your understanding of “falling in love” or “finding the one” – if at all?
The World Bank’s conference on “The State of Economics, the State of the World” was an opportunity to take stock of the emergence of new paradigms for understanding economic development. Following Ken Arrow’s talk on the history of the neoclassical model and Shanta Devarajan’s comments on this model’s centrality in the Bank’s work, I had the opportunity to discuss two paradigms of how individuals make decisions that have recently emerged in economics, drawing on psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
The neoclassical model, which remains the standard theory of economics, studies the social determination of prices. The theory assumes that individuals are rational actors with stable and autonomous preferences. The theory thus assumes that there are no social influences on preferences. But this assumption has become contested. Psychologists have shown that individuals see things not as they are, but distorted by frames that make some features salient and others not. Moreover, individuals fill in missing features by using information from associations that might or might not be relevant.
For example, look at the picture below. Each box has three figures. Framing effects lead you to see the second figure in each of the two boxes differently and to neglect its ambiguity.
The cognitive system can be thought of as a structure-seeking device. The mental models (the categories, prototypes, concepts, identities, and stories) that individuals have absorbed from experience and exposure have framing effects. In psychology, processes of perception and cognition that were once thought to be universal across humans are now recognized to vary systematically across cultural groups.
One reason that these processes are variable is that individuals use prototypes—patterns of attributes—to classify objects into particular types of things. Different cultural groups of individuals, by virtue of their different experiences and exposure, will have learned different prototypes. When individuals learn new prototypes, their perceptions and desires may change.
Even exposure to fiction can be a source of new prototypes and thus of social change. Today about one-fourth of the population in Brazil watches the primetime soap opera at 9:15 each weeknight. Globo, the main producer of soap operas in Brazil, deliberately crafted them with characters who had few or no children. This has been in sharp contrast to prevailing fertility rates in Brazil over the same time period.
Causal identification of the impact of the Globo soap operas on fertility rates in Brazil is based on the arguably random timing when different municipalities obtained access to the Globo emissions. A study by Eliana La Ferrara and colleagues in 2012 shows that a fertility decline in a municipality began after the first year that the municipality gained access to the Globo soap operas. The decline was greatest for women close in age to a leading female character in a current soap opera, which is consistent with a role model effect. For women of age 35–44, the decrease was 11% of mean fertility.