The social problem of low conscientiousness

Let me preface this with an example I’ve given in classes. When we talk about social problems, we have to be careful what we mean. We don’t simply mean something a lot of people don’t like. In terms of public health, for example, one person’s case of heart disease is not a public health issue in the way one person’s case of ebola is a public health issue. Heart disease becomes a public health issue when it’s a widespread issue with systemic causes that can be fruitfully addressed in a systemic way.

This weekend, as I sat waiting to be called to renew my vehicle registration, I overheard the following exchange (this is inexact, but roughly corresponds):

Receptionist: Can I have your name, sir?

Guy: [J]

Receptionist: And what can we do for you today, J?

Guy: I need to update my registration.

Receptionist: Do you have all the forms? ID, title, emissions inspection, two proofs of address?

Guy: Does a W-2 count as proof of address?

Receptionist: Unfortunately it doesn’t. It can count for proof of your Social Security number. We need two other proofs of address.

Guy: (Loudly) Man, I ain’t got two proofs of shit! Fuck! (storms out)

Now, I agree with J, the rules of motor vehicle registration can be a hassle to comply with, even before you come in and wait. And with only a little bit of imagination we could probably come up with a better system. Most of us have probably thought of tweaks while we waited. But come on, J, them’s the breaks. Yelling at the receptionist won’t change anything. A little self-control goes a long way in life. By itself the interaction wasn’t really a big deal, but people who yell at receptionists tend to express their low conscientiousness in other ways that can be. (I’m sure the receptionist wasn’t happy, but she didn’t seem overly fazed.)

In what follows I may be unfair to J, but from my limited sample of his behavior I am going to generalize him into an archetype we’re all familiar with, and hey, I doubt he will read this anyway. (Plus, is it more likely that the moment you encounter somebody is when they’re acting consistently with their long-term personality or when they’re acting inconsistently with it?)

I think about people like J a lot, people who get low scores in the five factor model’s conscientiousness category. The general population is full of them, and they’re greatly overrepresented in sub-populations of interest to policy makers and people who study rules: the unemployed, welfare recipients, jail and prison inmates, etc. All evidence suggests that major personality traits are partly heritable, i.e. there’s little we can do about them, but there is plenty of room for environment to influence them as well, and of course we know people respond to incentives.

We have a lot of money in formal social institutions that deal with low-conscientiousness people. I recently saw a news story about two men arrested for auto theft while on a roundabout drive to the local courthouse, where one of the men was to pick up an ankle monitor for a previous auto theft arrest. It’s hard to imagine what could be done to deter this kind of bad apple but more of the criminal justice system. People like J, however, aren’t beyond the pale.

I give the Left credit for thinking about systemic influences on behavior, but I often think its prescriptions are lacking. For example, people like J may benefit in the short term from having a social safety net to fall back on when their lack of self-control makes maintaining gainful employment difficult, but in the long term this weakens the incentive to develop self-control. I know the counterargument: the social safety net helps poor children and other deserving poor, and it’s better to cushion too many rather than too few. Creating institutions that penalize low-conscientiousness behavior without unduly impacting others, and that aren’t retroactive criminal justice institutions, is a very difficult task. I readily acknowledge this, but the goal should still be one of the guiding lights of policy. At the very least, failure to acknowledge the tradeoff should be viewed as highly suspicious.

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Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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