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Real-world gloom

September 01, 2008

Re "A drop in confidence," Opinion, Aug. 25

The author is half-right. Americans are experiencing learned helplessness, it's true, but only in part because of the large-scale economic shocks he discusses.

Like most other economists with a recession-insulated academic post, Dan Ariely seems to base his conclusions on aggregate statistics that fail to capture the dire, real-world circumstances many Americans face. These are circumstances that the hard numbers apparently conceal.

There are indeed multiple, concrete, real-world reasons for our gloom -- skyrocketing prices for staples such as food, housing, gasoline and healthcare; years of wage stagnation; and an abrupt shortening of the credit lifeline that many Americans have been holding onto just to meet basic expenses.

Nothing we do seems to improve our situation. This does indeed produce a kind of learned helplessness, but a kind not merely "to be expected" despite the facts but rather a rational response to hard reality. If the price of necessities does not fall and/or wages do not rise, our justified sense of helplessness, and the gloom it produces, can only increase.

Perhaps it's time for economists to find a more revealing set of hard numbers.

Tom McCarthy

Stanwood, Wash.

Maybe this culture would be less gloomy if we could get past the anthropocentric belief that it is OK to deliver electrical shocks to other sentient beings in the name of behavioral science. Just a thought.

Anthony Musick


If exposure to uncontrollable events leads to helplessness, I'm not sure government regulation is the proper antidote. Increased regulation would reduce our sense of control even further.

I agree we've experienced an alarming sequence of disasters over the last decade. But I also believe that it's the experience of overcoming events like these that bolsters confidence -- not relying on the government to circumnavigate them for us.

No one is ever going to eliminate unpredictable events or setbacks. The best we can do is prepare for them by fostering resilience. That seems like a far better antidote to feelings of helplessness than government regulation.

William Robertson

Santa Barbara

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