Social stereotypes of economic thinking and their impact on economic behavior

Human thinking is the product of millions of years of evolution based on the struggle for existence. In the process of this fierce struggle, the organization of thinking was improved, those qualities that ensured the survival of man were fixed and reproduced. Abstract-figurative thinking, capable of operating with classes of objects, developed, the conceptual apparatus was enriched. The expansion of the sphere of subject-practical human activity has exacerbated the contradiction associated with a sharp increase in the number of objects of the external world with which a person is forced to interact, and the limited mental resources necessary for this interaction. Experiments of psychologists indicate that a normal person is able to simultaneously keep 7 ± 2 objects in the field of active attention. In fact, in the immediate environment of a person is, as a rule, a much larger number of different objects. The resolution of this contradiction turned out to be possible through the qualitative development of such a side of the human psyche as the ability to build stable reflex chains of connections, which, once formed, are able to function on the principle of “a translated image at the input – a reaction at the output”. The simplest example of such a stable chain of reflexes is human walking. Having learned to walk in early childhood, a person in the future no longer focuses his attention on which leg and where he needs to move at a given time, he does it automatically. As a result, mental energy is released for other operations. The same thing happens, for example, when learning to drive a car, which at first seems so complicated, and then becomes more and more simple and natural. Such stable chains of human reflex actions are called dynamic stereotypes.

However, dynamic stereotypes were able to only partially resolve the contradiction associated with limited mental resources. With the development and complication of the social structure in the life of people, the connections “man – man” and less and less “man- nature” began to play an increasingly important role. Accordingly, the energy costs of thinking for the perception and processing of information emanating from social objects (other people, their groups, facts, phenomena of social life, etc.) have increased immeasurably. The development of these processes has exacerbated at a new qualitative level the problem of limited human mental resources. The way out of this problem situation was possible through the improvement of the ability of individual thinking to programmatic functioning. Such a mode of thinking is associated with the formation, preservation and reproduction of programs (algorithms, templates) for the perception and evaluation of social information that predetermine the behavior of an individual in certain situations. Such programs are called social stereotypes.

There are two main ways to form social stereotypes. The first is associated with the accumulation of individual experience and its consolidation in the form of stable, usually emotionally colored, ideas about a social object or phenomenon that are fixed  in the subconscious of the individual and determine his way of thinking. The second is associated with a more or less conscious acceptance of ideas external to the individual, which he assimilates in the process of socialization. This process unfolds from early childhood, when parents indicate to the child who can be friends with and with whom not. Being a constantly dependent being (on parents, on a group, on an employer, on the state), a person is forced to one degree or another to voluntarily follow the ideas characteristic of his social environment. The prevalence of such a practice leads to the “effect of stereotyping” of public consciousness (Sokolova G.N., 1995), when certain ideas, views become indisputable and are withdrawn by society from the sphere of critical comprehension. The “stereotyped effect” is a natural consequence of the development of mass consciousness, but the specifics and consequences of its emergence largely depend on how the social system develops: mainly in a natural way in line with the action of objective socio-economic laws or in conditions of centralized management, an attribute of which is monoideology.

The “natural” environment of manifestation of the “stereotyped effect” contributes more to the development of social stereotypes that meet the real interests of members of society. The evolutionary development of such a system is accompanied by a gradual change in the dominant stereotypes of mass consciousness. The “authoritarian” environment of the manifestation of the “stereotype effect”, in which, as a rule, the interest of the ruling (political, economic) elite is veiled under the guise of “people’s interests”, determines the formation of rigid, monotonous stereotypes that determine the perception of social reality on the principle “who is not with us, is against us”. The defectiveness and danger of such stereotyping is fully manifested in the conditions of social transformations. A striking historical example here is the collapse of the Soviet economic system. The collapse of socialist mono-ideology created a value-normative vacuum in the minds of people who were unable to independently develop programs of thinking and behavior in the absence of a “guiding and guiding” force.

The Soviet socio-economic system strictly regulated the methods of economic activity in the conditions of one – the state form of ownership. A limited set of types of economic behavior was imposed on man, which were essentially reduced to a single model – hired labor for the state. The historical forms of this model ranged from the “serf” labor of collective farmers attached to their farms, who at one time did not even have civil passports and received wages in kind for the notorious “labor days”, to the “free” labor of workers and employees who realized their professional potential in the same type of structures of production relations, fettering initiative and creativity. This situation manifested itself in the common stereotype of the mass consciousness “initiative is punishable” and was reflected in the results of republican sociological research in 1991, according to which “only 34% of respondents fully realized their abilities in labor activity, 50% – not always, 10% – did not realize, 4% – found it difficult to answer. To the question – “Could you work better?” – up to 40% answered in the affirmative; probably could – up to 50%; no – 10 %. Characteristically, the answers to the question asked almost did not depend on who we interviewed – the workers or the peasantry.” It is difficult to even imagine what effect, including economic, the country did not receive and how low the efficiency of social production was.

It would seem that the problematic situation should have been resolved with the beginning of the perestroika processes in Soviet society. The range of economic alternatives has significantly expanded, conditions have appeared for the development of collective and private forms of ownership. The idea that people will “seize” these new opportunities, fully realize them, enriching themselves and the country, has captured the minds and led to a temporary rise in the enthusiasm of the masses. The whole illusory nature of these hopes was shown by subsequent history: the collapse of a huge power, the aggravation of social contradictions, the economic crisis … Public practice has once again confirmed that economic consciousness cannot be changed in a historically short period of time, especially when it comes to consciousness stereotyped in the conditions of authoritarian forms of governance and the dominance of official mono-ideology. It is one thing when people verbally (or in their thoughts) express dissatisfaction with the lack of economic freedoms and the lack of conditions for their self-realization, and quite another when they receive this freedom and with it responsibility for the economic choices made (or not made) and do not know what to do about it.

The economic thinking of a person, constrained by outdated stereotypes, is unable to independently develop effective models of individual economic behavior in the new economic conditions. The consequence of this is inconsistency, imbalance, emotional overload of thought processes, the result of which is often the alienation of a person from the “new” world, in which he cannot find a place for himself. The prevalence of such a situation provokes social nostalgia, at a time when everything was “clear” and “ordered”. Such a feature of social mood determines the desire to return society to its original state. As a result, people resuscitate and reproduce traditional, pre-reform types of social, economic, political (electoral) behavior. However, the pattern of social development is such that it is impossible to turn the “wheel of history” back. Under these conditions, economic thinking tries to combine new ideas with previous experience, developing inconsistent, individually oriented models of economic behavior.

Let us illustrate the described situation on the materials of the republican sociological research conducted by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus in 2001. Respondents were asked to assess the effectiveness of the activities of public authorities at various levels. The answers were distributed as follows: 10.1% of respondents consider the activities of local authorities to be effective, 45.4% – ineffective, 41.5% found it difficult to answer; the activities of the Council of Ministers are regarded as effective – 7.0% of respondents, as ineffective – 38.0%, found it difficult to answer – 51.7%; the activities of the National Assembly were defined as “effective” – 7.8% of respondents, “ineffective” – 37.6%, found it difficult to answer – 51.2%; the activity of the President of the country, respectively , 25.2 %; 34,7 %; 37,8 %. The predominance of negative answers is not surprising and is a natural consequence of the low estimates that respondents give to the socio-economic situation in the republic and their own financial situation. Only 1.2% of respondents rated the financial situation of their family as “very good”, 4.1% – as “rather good”, 45.5% – “average”, 32.1% – “rather bad”, 11.5% – “very bad”, 5.1% – found it difficult to answer. With regard to the assessment of the socio-economic situation in the country as a whole, the distribution of responses is further shifted to the negative area of the scale. Only 0.1% of respondents consider it very good, 2.1% – rather good, 26.9% – average, 36.4% – rather bad, 20.6% – very bad, 13.5% found it difficult to answer. Moreover, 38.2% of respondents believe that the situation in the republic continues to deteriorate (against 4.7% who believe that it is improving).

What do respondents see as a way out of the current problematic situation, the brief description of which, according to their own estimates, is “a poor socio-economic situation and low efficiency of state authorities”? 43.8% see this way out, in particular, in “strengthening state control and regulation.” There is a clear contradiction in the economic thinking of respondents, which continues to be largely in captivity of dependent stereotypes. People continue to believe that their socio-economic problems can (and should) be solved by the “good lord” in the person of state authorities. It is no coincidence that the thesis about the “transition to a targeted system of social support for different categories of the population” found a lively response in the hearts of respondents. The breadth of the wording provoked the self-identification of the respondents with representatives of these very “different categories” expecting support from the state, and determined their answers: 50.5% of respondents expressed the opinion that the implementation of this thesis will positively affect the socio-economic situation in the republic. Let us give another example of the inconsistency of economic thinking, which declares abstract slogans and at the same time does not accept programs that could contribute to the implementation of the proclaimed ideas. Thus, 60.0% of respondents positively assess the slogan “Ensuring equal conditions for the development of all forms of ownership”, but only 30.2% believe that the privatization of state property will positively affect the development of the socio-economic situation in the republic.

The revealed inconsistency and inconsistency of economic thinking of the respondents determines the corresponding typology of their economic behavior. To the question “What approach do you adhere to in solving your material problems?” 34.7% of respondents answered that they are trying to increase their income in all possible ways, 40.8% – reduce the level of their needs (eat worse, dress worse, do not rest, do not treat), 11.7% – do nothing (try to forget, distract from problems), 12.8% – said otherwise. As can be seen from the answers received, more than half of the respondents are carriers of a passive type of economic behavior. Only about 1/3 of the respondents adapted to the new, market conditions of management and implement an active type of economic behavior. And we are witnessing this picture 15 years after the beginning of Soviet perestroika and 10 years after the beginning of cardinal changes in the socio-economic system in the conditions of state independence of the Republic of Belarus.

As evidenced by the results of the study, a significant factor in the quality of social stereotypes, predetermining the appropriate strategy of economic behavior, is age. According to this criterion, two very well-defined groups are distinguished: up to 45 years; 45 years and older. 52.8% of the respondents in the first group are trying to increase their income in all possible ways, while in the second age group there were 2 times less of them – 26.0%. 32.1% of respondents from the first group and 49.0% from the second group reduce the level of their needs; do nothing – 12.7% and 23.0%, respectively. It is obvious that people under 45 years of age, whose conscious activity began already in the era of great changes, have a more flexible economic thinking, which makes it easier to adapt to market conditions of management. Representatives of the older age group, a significant part of whose labor biography fell on the Soviet period, are, as a rule, carriers of economic thinking, in which old stereotypes remain, preventing the formation of new, more adapted to the changed economic practice types of economic behavior.