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Hong Kong Protests: Reasoning and Emotion

Source: Baycrest – Wikipedia user – CC-BY-SA-2.5

Students who lived through the high point of the mainstream neoclassical school of economics in the mid-twentieth century might be forgiven for finding “behavioral economics” something of an oxymoron. Economics, it had seemed in those days, embodied an approach to human behavior that began and ended with self-interest and perfect rationality. “Behavioral economics” is about populating our models of the economy with complex, emotional, and only partly rational humans, rather than (in Richard Thaler’s phrase) the Econs of that era’s textbooks. Political protests, including the historically important ones ongoing in Hong Kong today, provide one of the best illustrations of behavioral economics’ strength in pinpointing just where rational calculus and emotion intersect.

Strictly rational and perfectly self-interested individuals should not bother even to spend an hour going to a polling place to cast a vote, much less spend hours on a sweltering street risking being tear-gassed or clubbed. But the people of Hong Kong are the latest of the countless examples of people defying the predictions of this “strictly selfish rational actor” model by doing just this—going out on the street to engage in collective defiance of authoritarianism. Many observers wonder not whether, but when, Hong Kong will pay the price that Beijing protesters incurred 30 years ago. Of course, one might think that we needed no further examples that people defy old-fashioned textbook economics’ paradigm of the rational economic man. My early years of teaching overlapped with the people’s power protests that brought down Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, the democracy movement that ended military rule in S. Korea in 1987, and the Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by the Chinese government in June, 1989.  Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt in 2011, Ukraine’s 2004 – 05 “orange revolution” and subsequent ouster of Viktor Yanukovych by demonstrators in Kiev in 2014, and the removal from power of Omar al Bashir and negotiation of an agreement on transition from military rule in Sudan this year, following months of protests, are more recent examples.

This year’s protests sparked by introduction of the bill on extradition from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland broke records, but July 1, anniversary of the handover to Hong Kong from Britain to the P.R.C. in 1997, has been a day of protest in the former colony throughout the past two decades. A study published on the eve of the protests in one of the economics discipline’s most prestigious journals used the July 1 demonstrations of three years earlier, 2016, to dig into the emotions and calculations that underlie decisions to go out on the street. Davide Cantoni and co-authors’ “Protests as Strategic Games: Experimental Evidence from Hong Kong’s Antiauthoritarian Movement” can also serve as an example of the way behavioral economics highlights the intersection of reason and emotion, self-interest and pro-sociality.

The focus of the Cantoni et al. paper is a small scale experiment they conducted at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that year. About a month before July 1, they had their university student subjects answer a battery of survey questions which included questions on own political attitude and those of friends, as well as now-standard survey questions used to provide measures of altruism and reciprocity—jointly used to construct an “index of prosociality.” They also elicited the subjects’ beliefs about how many people would turn out for the 2016 July 1 demonstration and their own likelihood of attending. They then sent messages to some of the students a few days before July 1 describing to them the conclusion of polling data regarding how many people would turn out for the demonstration that year. And after the demonstration, they asked each subject to report whether he or she had participated.

Cantoni et al. emphasize as their main finding from multivariate statistical analysis that students with favorable views of the movement whose prior belief about attendance at the demonstration was exceeded by the attendance forecast were less likely to go to the demonstration, whereas those whose prior belief was more optimistic than the forecast were more likely to go to it. They argue that theirs is the most carefully controlled investigation of whether “social contagion”—the inclination to imitate what others are doing—has a decisive role in determining turn-out for such demonstrations, and that their finding runs counter to a social contagion hypothesis. It is better explained, they argue, by the idea that people sympathetic to a cause may value having a successful demonstration take place, but that they are more likely to free ride by letting others do the demonstrating if they are convinced that a respectable level of participation will be achieved without their own presence. (A successful demonstration is in this case what economists call a “threshold public good.”) The authors also recognize that their findings might be specific to Hong Kong and to the circumstances surrounding July 1, 2016. I would note, in particular, that the 2016 demonstration ended up being a relatively small one (perhaps 100,000 participants) that was far exceeded by the demonstrations against this year’s extradition bill, in which as many as two million of Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million are said by organizers to have participated.

As important as the finding about supporters’ main concern being seeing that “enough people” go to the demonstration, from my standpoint, is Cantoni et al.’s demonstration that one of the most significant factors explaining who went to the demonstration was “prosociality,” as measured by the index mentioned above. As discussed many times in this space, people tend to be heterogeneous in their social inclinations, with some being more, others less, inclined to cooperate and help others. A key point is that some people’s inclinations are closer to that of the postulated “selfish economic man” than are others. Prosocial inclinations do exist and can be drawn upon to accomplish many societal ends, including the creation and upholding of democracy via civic engagement. So while Cantoni et al. cleverly document a tendency to free ride if enough others are expected to turn out, there still must be a motivation for anyone at all to show up, and concern about what happens to society, not only to oneself, is one major ingredient.


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