How Ideas Affect Actions
Jennifer L. Hochschild
July 10, 2004
For publication in Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, ed. Robert Goodin and Charles Tilly (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
--John Maynard Keynes, 1936
The truth is always the strongest argument.
Men freely believe that which they desire.
--Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico
One does what one is; one becomes what one does.
-- Robert Musil, c. 1930
Writers ranging in era and style from Sophocles and Caesar to Musil and Keynes have asserted that ideas affect actions. These epigraphs, however, provide more than eloquent testimony for that assertion. They suggests three ways in which ideas and actions are linked: ideas can override interests, as Sophocles says, and therefore change how a person acts; ideas can justify interests, as Caesar says, and therefore reinforce a person’s preferences for action; or ideas can shape a person’s understanding of his or her interests, as Musil says, and therefore create a new set of preferred actions. This article explores each of those influences, and considers how much and when ideas affect actions in these distinct ways.
“The Truth Is Always the Strongest Argument:” Ideas Can Override Interests
The central problem in determining the impact of ideas on actions is causal; how does one distinguish an idea from an action, and then determine which affects the other more than vice versa? One can blur the two concepts by claiming that an idea or set of words is an action (as in “I do” while standing with a partner before a minister; see Austin 1975; MacKinnon 1993), or that an action expresses an idea without needing the utterance of any words (as in voting by raising one’s hand). Nevertheless, one cannot analyze the relationship between ideas and actions without first distinguishing them; to do so most sharply, I need to introduce a third term – interests—and then define the three concepts in relation to each other.
Ideas, in this construction, lie in the realm of identity (“who am I, and how am I related to these others?”), morality (“what is right and wrong?”), and causation or interpretation (“how do I understand this phenomenon or process?”). Interests, in this construction, lie in the realm of recognized material or physical desires or drives (“what must I do to get X?”). Actions are intentional behaviors, steps taken to achieve a goal. The most straightforward way, then, to show that ideas affect actions is to posit an idea that would lead to one action against an interest that would lead to a different action, and to show that the former action occurs rather than the latter.
That simple, even simplistic, construction is surprisingly resonant. It can be framed as false consciousness; people are expected (and hoped) to take a given set of actions based on their interests, but they are persuaded against taking those actions by some set of ideas that obscure their interests or distort their priorities. The failure of voters of the United States to mandate public policies to redistribute more than a tiny fraction of wealth downward is one important illustration. After all, the median level of wealth-holding in the United States is dramatically below the mean level, so the many poor could easily outvote the few rich to establish, for example, a confiscatory inheritance tax. Indeed, thinkers from Aristotle through John Adams feared democracy for just that reason. As Adams put it,
Suppose a nation, rich and poor... all assembled together.... If all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, [would not] the eight or nine millions who have no property... think of usurping over the rights of the one or two million who have?... Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor... and the idle... but the time would not be long before... pretexts [would] be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them.... At last a downright equal division of everything would be demanded, and voted.
Adams’ prediction has not come true; as more and more Americans attained the franchise from the early nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, inequality in the distribution of wealth rose steadily. It fell in the four decades after World War II, but has since risen to pre-war levels despite recent increases in voting rights among poor African Americans, those below age 21, and immigrants.
Arguably U.S. voters’ beliefs mistakenly keep them from taking action that would be in their own interests. They may falsely believe that it is hopeless to try to fight the wealthy and powerful (Gaventa 1980), or that they too will someday benefit from permitting the wealthy to keep their assets (Bartels forthcoming 2005). Or perhaps people permit conceptions of morality to override the impulse to act on their interests; poor Americans may believe that the rich deserve to keep their money just as the poor do (Hochschild 1981), or they may care more about a candidate’s religious faith and family values than about his or her tax policy (Brady 2001). Alternatively, they may be tricked by politicians into believing that a policy that helps the wealthy will actually help them (Hacker and Pierson forthcoming 2005). Whatever the precise explanation, the general point here is that people are taking actions based on ideas of morality, hope, or prudence rather than taking actions that would gratify their interests.
Conceptually similar to false consciousness, but with the opposite normative valence, is the Sophoclean argument that ideas can enable people to rise above their mere interests in choosing what actions to take. This is the argument of Gunnar Mydral, who describes the American dilemma as
the ever-raging conflict between… the valuations preserved on the general plane…[of] the ‘American Creed’, where the American thinks, talks, and acts under the influence of high national and Christian precepts, and, on the other hand, the valuations on the specific planes of individual and group living, where personal and local interests; economic, social, and sexual jealousies; considerations of community prestige and conformity; group prejudice against particular persons or types of people; and all sorts of miscellaneous wants, impulses, and habits dominate his outlook.
Myrdal was not complacent; “if America wants to make the ... choice [admit Negroes to full citizenship] she cannot wait and see. She has to do something big, and do it soon.” But he insisted, perhaps strategically, on optimism: “America is constantly reaching for… democracy at home and abroad. The main trend in its history is the gradual realization of the American Creed…. America can demonstrate that justice, equality and cooperation are possible between white and colored people” (Myrdal 1944: xlvii, 1021-1022).
Within two decades of publication of The American Dilemma, the United States had desegregated public accommodations and schools (in principle, at least) as a consequence of Brown v. Board of Education, and had passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. The causes ranged from the pressures of popular political protest through concern that segregation undermined American claims in the Cold War -- but at least some people responded to the idea of the American Creed. Thus federal district judge James McMillan explained in a Senate hearing his ruling that the schools of Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina, must be desegregated:
I grew up... accepting the segregated life which was the way of life of America for its first 300 years.... I hoped that we would be forever saved from the folly of transporting children from one school to another for the purpose of maintaining a racial balance of students in each school.... I set the case for hearing reluctantly. I heard it reluctantly, at first unbelievingly. After... I began to deal in terms of facts and information instead of in terms of my natural-born raising, I began to realize... that something should be done... I have had to spend some thousands of hours studying the subject... and have been brought by pressure of information to a different conclusion. ... Charlotte -- and I suspect this is true of most cities -- is segregated by Government action.... The issue is one of constitutional law, not politics; and constitutional rights should not be swept away by temporary majorities (quoted in Hochschild 1984: 137).
It seems warranted to accept change Judge McMillan’s change of heart in the terms that he himself used to explain it (especially given the vilification he received in some quarters); he rejected his and his class’s material interests in favor of a more morally resonant understanding of racial segregation, based in part on more accurate knowledge of the true situation and in part on deep convictions about the nation’s constitutional core. It is an eloquent statement of how new ideas can override old interests and thus lead to novel actions.
“Men Freely Believe that Which They Desire:” Ideas Can Justify Interests
The Kantian assumption just discussed, that ideas are most clearly in evidence when they override interests to affect actions, can be relaxed. That is, ideas can influence action by reinforcing rather than overriding interests, thereby leading a person to act more vigorously in pursuit of what he or she wanted to do in any case.
Here too there can be varied political or normative connotations of what is analytically the same phenomenon. For example, one can critique the ideology of the American dream by pointing out that it encourages winners in the lottery of life to believe that they deserve their good fortune. The ideology holds that, given a political structure with equal opportunity to advance and reasonably abundant resources, a person’s success depends mainly on his or her own talents and efforts. Virtue, in this construction, is associated with success. As a result of this ideology, it is easy for people to come to believe that they are hard-working, talented, and honorable if they single-mindedly pursue wealth. John D. Rockefeller’s turn‑of‑the‑century Sunday school address epitomizes the social Darwinist view: “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest.... The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God” (Ghent 1902: 29. See Piketty 1995 for a fascinating discussion of how this ideology varies across social classes and nations). Zora Neale Hurston put the opposite end of this philosophy most simply: “there is something about poverty that smells like death.”
Most commentators who reject the ideology of the American dream because it too readily justifies the ruthless pursuit of self-interest are on the political left. But the political right has its own illustrations of how ideas affect actions by promoting interests while disguising them as something more praiseworthy. Consider affirmative action for affluent African Americans in colleges, professional schools, and jobs. According to supporters, even well-off blacks suffer from the persistent degradations of racism: they are more likely to be stopped by police or highway patrolmen; their families have less wealth to provide luxuries or a security net; they are presumed to be less intelligent or lazier than their classmates. Therefore affirmative action is warranted to compensate for injustices to them as individuals, to overcome historical and contemporary injustices to their race, and to develop leaders needed by the nation as a whole. To opponents of affirmative action, however, all of this is an elaborate rationale for giving some people an unfair edge in intense competitions. The daughter of a doctor from Scarsdale is, in this view, using Americans’ recent commitment to racial justice to advance her interests, even over the more deserving claims to help from the son of a coal miner in Kentucky.
I know of no way to determine whether ideas more frequently override interests or reinforce and justify them. The two claims roughly correspond to two disciplines, psychology and economics, and political scientists borrow freely from both. On the one hand, political psychologists such as David Sears and Donald Kinder show how seldom individuals’ policy preferences accord with their self-interest in matters such as opposition to mandatory transportation for school desegregation (“forced busing”), government policies on jobs or taxation, or support for a war (Kinder and Sears 1985: esp. pp. 671-672; Sears and Funk 1990). Psychologically-oriented political scientists such as Stanley Feldman similarly point to the importance of values and ideology, rather than self-interest, in structuring political attitudes and policy preferences (Feldman 2003).
Economists, on the other hand, have built a whole discipline around the presumption that knowing a person’s material interests permits one to predict how, on average, that person will act in every arena from marriage and racial discrimination (Becker 1976) to preferences for political candidates or public policies. In this view, ideas reinforce or even flow rather straightforwardly from interests, and interests lead rather straightforwardly to actions. Some political scientists concur, showing for example that voters do attend carefully to candidates and policy issues linked to their interests, and that they seldom permit countervailing values or ideas to override their interests when they vote (Hutchings 2003).
At the aggregate level, we can again see mixed evidence on the relationship between ideas and interests in producing action. The American Democratic party draws somewhat more support than does the Republican party from people with incomes below the median, but the overlap of incomes across the two parties is even more striking. More women than men in the United States endorse affirmative action for women or describe women’s rights as “very important” or something that they are “very concerned about,” but just as many women as men endorse restrictions on the right to obtain an abortion. Nine out of ten African Americans vote for the Democratic party in presidential elections, but a quarter nevertheless describe themselves as “conservative,”compared with over a third of whites. (Survey data are from General Social Survey, various years.) In these instances, and others, we see evidence both that ideas reinforce interests -- which makes it difficult to know how and how much ideas are affecting political action -- and that ideas override interests -- which makes it clearer that ideas are affecting actions to a considerable degree.
“One Does What One Is; One Becomes What One Does:” Ideas Create Interests
Another simplifying assumption with which I began now warrants examination. When interests and ideas coincide I have assumed, with Julius Caesar, that the former come first. That is, people have material or physical interests that they reinforce or justify with ideas, the combination of which then produces actions. But what if ideas come first? What if people have conceptions of themselves and the world around them that lead them to conceive of their interests in a particular way? In this view, one does what one is; a person’s actions are directed by an understanding of his or her interests, which are derived from ideas or conceptions of the self in a particular context.
The claim that ideas create interests underlies arguments ranging from explanations for ethnic conflict, to social movement theory, to behavioral economics, to postmodern linguistic analysis. Ashutosh Varshney, for example, agrees with other scholars that leaders can mobilize ethnic groups in pursuit of the state’s (or the resistance movement’s) interests, but he argues that ethnic identities and the passion with which people adhere to them must come into existence before any such instrumental manipulation is possible. Identities and passions come first, out of –- where? history, culture, religion, family, language, or some combination thereof. Once they are in play, some individuals change their understanding of their own interests to the point where they are prepared to die for even a losing cause; only then is leaders’ manipulation possible. As Varshney puts it, “some goals -- national liberation, racial equality, ethnic self-respect -- may be deemed so precious that high costs, quite common in movements of resistance, are not sufficient to deter a dogged pursuit of such objectives. The goals are often not up for negotiation and barter; the means deployed to realize them may well be” (Varshney 2003). In short, coming to think of oneself as a member of an oppressed group can lead a person to redefine his or her interests from safety to resistance through a national liberation movement, with an obvious connection to action.
Once an ethnically-based struggle is underway and escalating, identities and interests become intertwined. One group’s commitment to ethnically-based mobilization creates an interest on the part of another group, against which it is mobilizing, in counter-mobilization. But the crucial initial step arguably is a move from a new idea or a renewed commitment to an old idea, to a new understanding of interests.
Even in social movements that fall far short of armed conflict, redefining one’s sense of self can change one’s definition of interests and subsequent appropriate action. This is the core of the phenomenal impact of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the consciousness-raising movement that followed it. Once women came to see themselves as an oppressed group, with shared problems caused by institutions and historical practices rather than by their personal failure as wives and mothers, their understanding of their interests changed. They began demanding access to ostensibly male jobs, equal pay for equal work, new policies on divorce and child care, punishment for the new concepts (though old practices!) of marital rape and sexual harassment, and so on. A parallel story can be told with regard to African Americans developing a sense of linked fate through the course of U.S. history (Dawson 1994), homosexuals redefining themselves from pervert or psychiatric patient to an oppressed group warranting civil rights, or people who could not hear well as they moved from being deaf to “Deaf.”
Even something as mild as identification with a political party can produce ideas that change one’s understanding of one’s interests and eventual political actions. By tracking the same set of voters over time, Paul Goren has found that people choose to identify with the Republican or Democratic party first, and then develop a strong commitment to limited government and traditional family values, or to equal opportunity and moral tolerance, respectively (Goren 2004).
The new field of behavioral economics is full of demonstrations showing how people develop ideas that move their definition of their own interests away from what classical economics would expect. Given a particular frame of reference, they can be easily induced to develop preferences that show how fluidly or “mistakenly” they determine their interests (Kahneman and Tversky 2000). For example, they choose greater certainty over greater gain:
Preference reversals occur when individuals are presented with two gambles, one featuring a high probability of winning a modest sum of money (the P bet), the other featuring a low probability of winning a large amount of money (the $ bet). The typical finding is that people often choose the P bet but assign a larger monetary value to the $ bet. This behavior is of interest because it violates almost all theories of preference, including expected utility theory (Slovic and Lichtenstein 1983: 596).
Finally, the claim that ideas create interests and thereby lead to actions is the central premise of the linguistic turn in the social sciences. From this perspective, the whole question of whether and how ideas affect actions is fundamentally misguided because any action -- and the very concept of action -- emerges from ideas. Without language, ideas, abstractions, comparisons, interpretations, there can be no human action, or at least none that is recognizably human. Consciousness is what turns a baby’s instinctive jerks into purposeful grasping, and what turns the adrenalin-based instinct for fight or flight into an emotion and a choice. In short, the materialist framework associated philosophically with Karl Marx and politically with communism and class-based political parties belongs in the dust-bin of history; ideas, not structures, processes, or interests are the motor of history.
As with my earlier discussions of how ideas influence actions, the claim that ideas may lead to a new understanding of interests and therefore to new actions can have multiple political connotations. Consider the question of whether Latinos should think of themselves and be understood as a race rather than an ethnicity. That is the claim of Ian Haney López: ““conceptualizing Latinos/as in racial terms is warranted…. The general abandonment of racial language and its replacement with substitute vocabularies, in particular that of ethnicity, will obfuscate key aspects of Latino/a lives” (Haney Lo'pez 1997). Conceiving of Latinos as a race, he argues, makes much clearer the ways in which they have suffered and still suffer from systematic discrimination and degradation. That clarity, in turn, can lead to political and legal actions to attain rights and resources that will help to overcome group subordination. But Peter Skerry sees the same move from ethnicity to race as deeply harmful to Latinos. In his view, “the racial lens we have adopted... distorts contemporary policies toward immigrants to the point where some problems are exacerbated, others ignored.” If Hispanic immigrants see themselves as an oppressed race rather than a struggling but hopeful new ethnic group in American politics, they will mistakenly define their interests in terms of a “legalistic quick fix,” such as litigation or pressure for affirmative action and descriptive representation in legislatures. That focus will draw them away from their really essential interests in obtaining education and jobs, developing community-based security networks, engaging in political mobilization of local communities, and learning English. “Racialization thus makes everything about immigration more intractable” (Skerry 1999: quotations on pp. 83, 97, 118). Skerry and Haney López agree on very little substantively, but analytically they are making the same argument: the way that members of a group conceive of themselves will shape their understanding of their interests and their chosen political actions.
One can take a further step by attending to the second clause in the quotation from Musil: it is not just that “one does what one is” as I have been discussing, but also “one becomes what one does.” That is, actions may cause ideas, which then cause interests; a person does something, and then searches for a story to explain what her or she is doing or has done. Thus women often join nativist or racist groups in order to spend evenings with their husbands or friends, and only later develop the ideologies and take the actions associated with those groups (Blee 2002). The psychologist Daryl Bem first developed this idea in academic discourse (Bem 1968), but the core insight is as old as the recognition that children taught to take certain actions are likely to develop the personality of the kind of person who would do those acts.
Moving Beyond “How Ideas Cause Actions”
Rather than trying to adjudicate among or weigh the importance of the ways in which ideas can cause actions, I turn in conclusion to the more interesting issue of which features of a context shape the relationship between ideas and actions. In broadest compass, there are (at least) three: history, institutions, and leaders.
The role of history is seen most sharply when one considers how ethnic identity can override material interests or shape one’s understanding of interests and rights. Most ethnic groups passionate enough to be willing to fight for their autonomy (or for domination) reach back for centuries, if not millennia, to explain their stance. Consider the Zionists’ claim to Eretz Israel, displaced Arabs’ claim to the land of Palestine, and Serbs’ explanation for the recent war in Kosovo:
As ... Christians are being martyred by their Muslim neighbors for the mere fact of being what they are, it is time to re-visit the history of the Kosovo conflict. Western media consumers may be forgiven for thinking that the history of that conflict starts in 1989, when the Serbs supposedly abolished the autonomy of that hitherto happy and harmonious multicultural province. This is not true, and a truthful account of the problem’s background is needed for an informed debate, lest the claims of the Albanian lobbies succeed yet again in imposing a Balkan agenda in Washington that is as offensive to decency as it is inimical to American interests.
Serbia’s physical and spiritual heart was in Kosovo.... Of all Kosovo battles the one that stands out happened on Vidovdan (St. Vitus’s Day), June 28, 1389. ... In all those years [since then] the Serbs have celebrated the great battle, not only as a day of mourning but as an event to be remembered and avenged (http://news.serbianunity.net/bydate/2004/March_24/12.html).
History, as this quotation makes abundantly clear, is not a set of neutral facts and events that occur in succession, but is itself a set of ideas that shape the ideas that lead to action. So invoking history does not resolve the question of how, when, and how much ideas shape actions, but it may provide an analytic starting point for understanding the elements of that relationship in any specific case (see the chapter in this volume by Charles Tilly).
Political scientists increasingly and usefully interpret the general point that “history matters” through the more precise concept of path dependency, which links change over time to a set of political institutions and practices (see the chapter in this volume by James Mahoney and Daniel Schensul). Path dependency can be defined simply as the assertion that “preceding steps in a particular direction induce further movement in the same direction;” from that starting point emerge an array of empirical propositions that help us to understand how and when ideas shape actions. These include the claims that “specific patterns of timing and sequence matter; a wide range of social outcomes may be possible [from a given starting point or in a particular nation]; large consequences may result from relatively small or contingent events; particular courses of action, once introduced, can be almost impossible to reverse; and, consequently, political development is punctuated by critical moments or junctures that shape the basic contours of social life” (Pierson 2000: quotations on pp. 251, 252).
Thus, for example, one could examine timing and sequence in the legislative introduction of a new policy proposal in order to understand diffusion of a new idea and the circumstances in which it affects a legislator’s behavior or the passage of a law. Or one could examine how an idea and its associated actions become more and more deeply embedded in an institution’s organization chart and resource allocation, a staff’s standard operating procedures, or a constituent group’s demands -- thus showing how a particular course of action, once established, becomes very difficult to reverse (Campbell 2003; Mettler and Soss 2004).
In fact, institutions and S.O.P’s can be thought of as the visible manifestation of the effect of an idea on action; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created and staffed once enough people came to see protection of the environment as a public problem that needed and would respond to a legislative solution. But institutions and established practices can also, conversely, be creators or constrainers of ideas that shape actions. That is, we are now learning that many people who work in the Pentagon or U.S. Justice Department differ from those in the U.S. State Department in their understanding of what is legitimate in international law or under military necessity to obtain information from prisoners of war. Of course, there is a deep causal difficulty here; do people choose to work in the Pentagon (State Department) because they hold a harsher (more lenient) understanding of what is permissible in wartime, or do they develop that view once they work in a given institution? Sorting out that causal question would provide one form of leverage on the question of how much ideas affect actions and vice versa.
Finally, path dependence understood as “increasing returns to an initial investment” (Pierson 2000) is not the only political dynamic through history. Change occurs, sometimes dramatically. Some change can be explained by concepts such as path dependence, institutional channeling, or shared interpretations of history -- but not all of it. The study of how ideas affect actions must leave a role for innovation, creativity, inspiration, leadership.
As a discipline, political science does a poor job of understanding sudden transformations because by definition they do not fit well-understood patterns or established covering laws. (No other discipline does any better.) But we have at least some analytic tools that can help to explain when new ideas change actions and when they simply disappear into the vasty deep. Concepts such as punctuated equilibrium (Baumgartner and Jones 1993), typologies of leadership (Burns 1979), exemplary biographies (Caro 1974; Branch 1989) or case studies (Birnbaum and Murray 1988), studies of historical periods undergoing major cultural shifts (Rochon 1998), and studies of grassroots mobilization (Payne 1995) can all help us to determine when a new idea transforms established conventions of action -- or at least can help us to understand retrospectively when and how such a break occurred in the past.
A final aphorism: as Victor Hugo tells us, "an invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." It is as easy to show that ideas affect actions as it is difficult to specify anything more precise about how, how much, when, and with what political consequences. In that further specification lies work for many political scientists to come.
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 My thanks for financial and institutional support to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs of Harvard University.