April 14, 2005

Social Exclusion and Self Control

Alina Stefanescu points to a new psychological study that's quite interesting. People who are excluded, socially, for whatever reason are far more unwilling to exert any sort of self-control over themselves:
These findings make sense, the researchers say, because regulating our behavior is what allows us to fit into society and be accepted in the first place. People who are rejected may feel that their self-regulation efforts were for naught and be less likely to self-regulate in the future. In fact, a follow-up experiment in the study suggests that rejected people are merely unwilling, not unable, to self-regulate.
That's an interesting study for a variety of reasons, but here's just one. Apropos of my post on culture-bashing below, it's worth spelling out just a little bit what I think communitarianism is, or should be. Sadly, I don't have the time to do it now, but one thing to start with is the fact that, as Robert Putnam has outlined rather nicely in Bowling Alone, people are doing fewer social-community type things these days: joining fewer civic groups, socializing with the neighbors less, attending fewer PTA meetings, etc. etc. To put it in his more technical terms, the stock of "social capital" is declining.

Now one of the offshoots here is that churches are generally picking up the slack—there was a New York Times Magazine story about megachurches a few weeks back that drove home the point pretty well: rocketing membership in these places is less about religious fervor, and more just due to the fact that people want some place to belong, especially if they've just moved to a new city or exurb (which, increasingly, people tend to do these days). Now eventually these church communities instill a good dose of that religious fervor, so for those decrying the "theocratification" of the United States, this is something to keep an eye on.

Right. Onto the political philosophy of it all, which isn't really my specialty, but that's never stopped me before. It's reasonable to think that democracy in America is, by and large, understood as the primary means by which we can secure individual rights. Anyone who's ever peeked at the Constitution can see that. Most American liberals, I think, would agree with this general interpretation, though they might have different ideas of what constitutes an "individual right" than, say, a libertarian. (The right to health care, say, or freedom from what tend to be fairly oppressive market forces.) Nonetheless, in the end everyone on both left and right ends up bemoaning the excesses of this sort of political setup: the kids are too libertine!, the CEO's too greedy!, materialism too rampant!, Hollywood stars too haughty!.

The varieties of backlash to these sorts of excesses, meanwhile, tend to move in the direction of actually curtailing these suddenly-too-excessive rights—so you get calls for near-punitive taxation and regulation from the left, or calls to force mothers to go back barefoot to the hearth from the right. What few seem to understand, however, is that many (though, importantly, not all) of these excesses may well result from a breakdown in the democratic community, of the sort that Putnam describes so well. As the study Alina points to suggests—although I'm expanding its conclusions rather untenably here—rips in the social fabric tend to make people unwilling to self-regulate. Whither America's rampant consumerism? Well, perhaps here.

That said, I'm not at all convinced that this is "the" problem facing America today, or that figuring out ways to increase civic and democratic participation will do all that much good. Personally, I prefer to focus on concrete things like health care and bankruptcy. Oh, and oil. Nonetheless, it's interesting to think about.
-- Brad Plumer 4:41 PM || ||