The predictive power of behaviors and attitudes
Social attitudes, leisure activities, and choices about what products and media to consume can predict various personal characteristics.
Likelihood of correctly guessing each attribute based on knowledge of people's:
Bertrand and Kamenica, 2018
In terms of consumer products, did you use Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard in 1992? That was a good predictor of high income for that year 62 percent of the time. In 2016, the best determinant of high income was owning an iPhone (69 percent predictive) or iPad (67 percent predictive). iPhone ownership was particularly instructive: “Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016,” the researchers write.
But while the divisions these media and products illustrate are real and deep, they are not new—indeed, they have been “nearly constant across the last quarter century,” write Bertrand and Kamenica. “It is nonetheless striking that the cultural gap has been constant even as the number of options has changed substantially.” Movies change, magazines come and go, and TV shows multiply, but the gap in how different groups consume entertainment and spend their money remains the same.
To measure this division, the researchers considered all the television shows or products that were available in the data in the years they studied. (The exact years studied varied depending on the data set.) The titles and products to watch, read, and buy changed from year to year, but this was reflected in the data. For example, the researchers analyzed Mediamark Research Intelligence data, which is based on questionnaires that asked people whether they had seen any of a few dozen movies—and the movies included in the questionnaire changed from year to year.
The researchers also fail to find evidence of an increasing cultural gap between men and women in terms of media consumption and social attitudes. The way men and women used their time became more similar between 1965 and the mid-1990s, but convergence has stopped since. Differences in men’s vs. women’s buying, media habits, and attitudes stayed relatively stable over the years. Many men like action, thriller, and sci-fi movies, while women opt for dramas and romantic comedies. Men may buy Sports Illustrated, while women pick up fashion and housekeeping magazines.
The researchers do find a widening gap between the behavior of white and nonwhite consumers. But by far the most striking exception to the overall pattern of stable cultural distances is with regard to the social attitudes of Democrats and Republicans. “We find that liberals and conservatives are more different today in their social attitudes than they have ever been in the last 40 years,” write Bertrand and Kamenica. “Divergence has been greatest in views on marriage, sex and abortion, voting participation and religion, and confidence.” This is in line with a study by Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole of the University of Georgia at Athens that finds the Democratic and Republican Parties are more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. But again, most of the differences studied sharpened between the 1970s and ’90s.
- Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica, “Coming Apart? Cultural Distances in the United States over Time,” Working paper, July 2018.
- Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole, “The Polarization of Contemporary American Politics,” Polity, July 2014.
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