Home > Real-World Economics Review, RWER > RWER issue 54: Adam Kessler

RWER issue 54: Adam Kessler

Real-World Economics Review, issue 54
You may read the whole paper here:

Cognitive dissonance, the Global Financial Crisis and

the discipline of economics*

Adam Kessler   [Fairleigh Dickinson University, USA]


The global financial and economic crisis has produced a powerful shock to the worldview of an influential group of economists whom I call believers in laissez faire (BLF). I provide evidence which suggests that the BLF responded to this shock in a manner that can best be described as irrational, ill-considered and clearly erroneous. I consider the social-psychological concept cognitive dissonance as the best explanatory framework for understanding this response. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that when real-world events “disconfirm” deeply-held beliefs this creates psychological discomfort in persons and they will respond by means of distortion and denial. I test the proposition that the BLF experienced cognitive dissonance through a survey in which I asked two groups of economists what their views were on 10 possible causes of the Great Recession. One group consisted of the signers of the notorious open letter circulated by the Cato Institute opposing President Obama’s stimulus program. (I consider members of this group to be self-proclaimed BLFs.) The second group consisted of a random sample of members of the American Economics Association. One of the possible causes I listed on the survey is the U.S. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977. The notion that the CRA is a major cause of the crisis apparently has great resonance among the BLF but is demonstrably false. Among other results, 46% of the signers of the letter believe that the CRA was one of three top causes of the crisis compared to 12% of the “other” economists. I conclude that the BLF exhibit symptoms to cognitive dissonance.  


The global economic and financial crisis of 2007-2009 (?) provides a rare natural experiment for the study of the social psychology of the economics profession. The “sub-prime” crisis of 2007, the banking crisis and credit crunch of 2007-2008 and the deep global recession which started in the United States in December 2007 constitute a powerful shock to the worldview of an influential minority of economists consisting of new classical economists, real business cycle (RBC) theorists, some new Keynesians, so-called “Austrians,” the monetarist remnant, many (most?) financial economists and assorted other believers in laissez-faire.[1] I call them the BLF for short. In the words of the title of a recent working paper, they have been “Slapped in the Face by the Invisible Hand.”[2] (Gorton, 2009). It is important from society’s (and the profession’s) point of view to try to understand the BLF’s responses to the crisis (and to predict future responses) since they have wide influence on (and often dominate) public policy discussions, especially those involving macro policy and financial regulation. They seem to be in a position to shape the “conventional wisdom” disseminated by elements of the media, institutions such as the O.E.C.D. and G-20, a number of developed-country governments and some circles within the central banking universe.[3]

My aim in this paper is to apply the concept cognitive dissonance (CD) to illuminate the BLF’s responses to the crisis. At least since the work of Akerlof and Dickens (1982) CD has been employed by economists to study both conventional and unconventional economic topics.[4]  Akerlof and Dickens themselves apply it to a labor market “anomaly,” namely the pervasive breaking of workplace safety standards by workers in risky occupations. Of course Akerlof and Dickens and subsequent writers employ CD to examine the behavior of the usual “agents” who are the subjects of study by economists: consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, investors (and more recently, voters, bureaucrats and politicians), whereas I intend to apply it to economists. But I justify this by an appeal to authority: In his presidential address to the Western Economics Association, Milton Friedman (1986) said about economists, “[w]e cannot in good conscience interpret ourselves as behaving differently from those we analyze. We cannot treat ourselves as an exception.”[5] (p.8) 

I proceed as follows: In the first section I state briefly why I view the BLF as adherents of an ideology rather than upholders of a “paradigm” or participants in a “research program,” [i.e., the well-known concepts introduced respectively in Kuhn (1962) and Lakatos (1970)]. In the second section I argue that CD offers a useful approach to explaining why adherents of ideologies (including economic ideologies) cling to them with such tenacity and resist efforts to challenge them. I call this the “CD hypothesis.” This adherence to an ideology (or “model”, as the collection of ideas, attitudes and beliefs which constitute an ideology may loosely be called) has been well-described by Solow (2005): “It can become very difficult ever to displace an entrenched model by a better one. Clever and motivated–including ideologically motivated–people can fight a rearguard battle that would make Robert E. Lee look like an amateur….Old models never die; they just fade away.” (p. 94). In the third section I show that a series of clearly irrational responses to the crisis in public statements by prominent BLFs provide evidence in favor of the CD hypothesis. In the fourth section I discuss frequent assertions by some economists as well as non-economists in the past three years that the U.S. financial crisis can in large part (if not entirely) be blamed on the U.S. Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 which attempted to reduce discriminatory lending practices by banks in communities where they obtained their deposits.[6] In the fifth section I show that there is overwhelming evidence that the “CRA hypothesis” is false and that adherence to it can be viewed as an indicator of the presence of cognitive dissonance among the BLF. In the sixth section, I report on a web-based survey in which I attempted to ascertain the views of two groups of economists on the causes of the Great Recession of 2007-09: Group A consisted of the signers of the notorious Cato Institute open letter which epitomizes the views of economists opposed to the ARRA, President Obama’s fiscal stimulus program.[7] (I consider this group to be self-proclaimed BLFs.) Group B consisted of a random sample of members of the American Economics Association (AEA). I found that there are significant differences in the views of the two groups. Members of group A are much more likely to blame the CRA for the crisis (as well as the so-called “government-sponsored enterprises” or GSEs) than are members of group B. This result suggests that cognitive dissonance can be attributed to the BLF.  In the seventh section I conclude.

You may read the whole paper here:

* I wish to thank my colleague Evangelos Djimopoulos for help and advice during all stages of this project.

[1] For the start of the recession see http://www.nber.org/cycles.html

[2] For a recently published book with an almost identical title see Gorton (2010).

[3] This can be seen in the “deficit hysteria” described in Nersisyan and Wray (2010). On the O.E.C.D. and deficits see for example Spicer and Younglay (2010). See also Trichet (2010).

[4] See the many references with the words “cognitive dissonance” in their title.

[5] Throughout this address Friedman naturally emphasizes the role of self-interest in explaining the behavior of business people, politicians and bureaucrats as well as economists but surprisingly he interprets the term extremely broadly. He asserts that “…self-interest is not restricted to narrow material interest. It includes the desire to serve the public interest, to help other people.” (p.9)  

[6] Public Law 95-128.

[7] American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5)

  1. Geof Rayner
    June 8, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Really loved this paper. It was a lot of fun. But then when I had finished reading it, I thought to myself “These people have power”. As the author shows, they sway opinion, they occupy the mainstream and they cut off real debate.One could apply the same methodology to climate change deniers as well as similar cults. It is not just denial however since there is an undertow of political and economic self-interest. And to admit mistakes is to have no clothes.

    What we need is a climate of scepticism in which original political economy flourished – such as the Scottish Enlightenment. Instead in these strangely unenlightened corporate times what we get is a version of Adam Smith – the cult of the hidden hand – in terms utterly unrecognisable to him and which he would have firmly disavowed.

    Where are you Keynes when we need you!

    Well done Adam Kessler.

    Geof Rayner (UK)

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