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Friday, July 29, 2011

Tocqueville, God, and American Life

Sam McNerney writes at Scientific American about Kanye West's musical laments:

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, "the more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit; yet, at the same time, the larger the array, the less likely it becomes that you picked the best item. You leave the store less confident in your choice, more likely to feel regret, and more likely to think about the options you didn’t choose."

The paradox of choice is nothing knew. Alexis de Tocqueville outlined it back in 1835 in the seminal text Democracy in America.

In American I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasure. The chief reason for this is that… [they] never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.

This is Kanye’s problem precisely: he is never satisfied because he does not understand why he isn’t getting what he wants emotionally even though he is getting what he wants physically. Psychologists have now empirically demonstrated that there is truth to this. A 2010 study (pdf) by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that while wealthy people are happier than poor people, money has diminishing returns. This means that someone making $75,000 is happier than someone making $20,000, but people making 5 million aren’t much happier than people making $100,000; so money is good, but not ultimately.

American discontent even extends to the Almighty. Tocqueville wrote that religion is the first of our political institutions, but not all believers are happy with God. Indeed, His approval rating is good but nowhere near 100 percent. Public Policy Polling reports (no joke):

Though not the most popular figure PPP has polled, if God exists, voters are prepared to give it good marks. Voters approve of God’s performance by 52-9 margin, making God about as popular as Murdock is unpopular. When asked to evaluate God on some of the issues it is responsible for, voters give God its best rating on creating the universe, 71-5. They also approve of its handling of the animal kingdom 56-11, and even its handling of natural disasters 50-13. Young voters are prepared to be more critical of God on natural disasters with those 18-29 rating it 59-26 compared to 47-12 among those over 65.

PPP surveyed 928 American voters from July 15th to 17th. The margin of error for the survey is +/-3.2%. This poll was not paid for or authorized by any campaign or political organization. PPP surveys are conducted through automated telephone interviews. PPP is a Democratic polling company, but polling expert Nate Silver of the New York Times found that its surveys in 2010 actually exhibited a slight bias toward Republican candidates.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is surprised that God's rating is that high: