By Ruben Enikolopov
Institutions are often defined as “rules of the game” that include both formal and informal constraints on agents’ behavior. Academic research (at least in economics) has traditionally focused more on formal institutions, whereas informal ones, such as beliefs, attitudes, and ideology received less attention.
The more existing it is to read high-quality research on factors that affect people’s attitudes. Recent paper “Curriculum and Ideology” by Davide Cantoni, Yuyu Chen, David Y. Yang, Noam Yuchtman and Y. Jane Zhang that is forthcoming in Journal of Political Economy is a great example of such work, looking at the effect of education on people’s political attitudes. In particular, the paper estimates the causal effect of a change in school curriculum in China in 2004-2010 on attitudes of the students. The paper shows that this change was successful in indoctrinating more positive views of China’s governance, changing attitudes toward democracy (surprise, surprise, making it less positive), and increasing skepticism toward free markets.
Although the paper does its best to address this issue, it is still very hard to figure out whether this reform have actually changed people’s attitudes or changed only how people report their attitudes (e.g. because now they realize what is the ‘right’ answer from the official point of view). There is a subtle difference between the two, but it might be very important in autocratic regimes in which ‘falsification of preferences’ is a common phenomenon. E.g. a recent study by Kirill Kalinin shows that exorbitant support of more that 80 percent of president Putin in Russia that is reported in the opinion polls, is slashed down by more that 20 percent if you use survey technics that allow to infer answers without directly asking sensitive questions. Of course, even changing how people report their attitudes is important from political point of view, but a big difference is that reported attitudes can flip in a second, whereas actual attitudes are changing very slowly.