“If you gave women the Priesthood and then took it away, would they be less happy than if theyâ€™d never gotten it to begin with?” That’s what some wise guy said on the McBride thread. At the time it was meant as a joke; on reflection, it may actually work as a serious question.
First, two paragraphs of necessary economics background (sorry):
Behavioral economics, an important branch of economics (some of its major pioneers recently received the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-Nobel prize), focuses on questions involving whether people value the same item differently depending on whether they own the item. Economists run experiments to see whether test subjects give more value to coffee mugs that they own — “I’ll sell you my mug for $7” — versus identical mugs that they don’t own — “I’ll buy yours for $5.” (Results suggest that people value their own mugs more.) The same economists ask questions like, “suppose you’re given $20 and then $10 is taken away — does that have the same effect as just being given $10?” And somewhat surprisingly, the answer is no. These experiments suggest that people get attached to things that they own: People are more satisfied with a gift of $10 than with a gift of $20-minus-$10, because the latter involves a taking away of something that’s theirs; people value their own coffee mug more than someone else’s, even when it’s the exact same mug.
In behavioral economic terms, the idea that people attach greater value to things that they own is called an endowment effect. Endowment effects are related to the concept of loss aversion — roughly speaking, that people will take more steps to avoid losing property they own, than they will to acquire property they don’t own, even when the monetary effects are identical. (N.B. Frank and Mike are so going to kill me for my quick-and-dirty explanation of behavioral econ– I’ve probably missed a dozen important points).
So here’s the serious question: Could some sort of retroactive endowment effect exist in the context of women-and- (or for that matter, Blacks-and- ) the priesthood?
That is, take an LDS woman, raised in the church, who has no idea about broader womens’ roles in past times. Women don’t have the priesthood right now, and she’s fine with that. This woman has been given her role, and she’s happy with it.
Now posit that this woman reads through church history and notices that women in the past were given much broader pristehood-like roles — Eliza R. Snow giving healing blessings and so forth. This may subject our reader to an endowment effect of sorts. It’s not just that she doesn’t have the priesthood now anymore, it’s not just current not having that’s at issue. Rather, this woman may now perceive that an ability to participate in certain ordinances — something she should have owned — has been taken away. And that result may make her less happy than if she were never given the coffee mug in the first place — even though she ends up at the same endpoint.
I’m honestly not sure whether this idea holds water. It requires a conception of the endowment effect that is broader than the literature I’m really familiar with — it requires an endowment effect that operates retroactively. This scenario isn’t the classic my-coffee-mug-versus-someone-else’s. It’s more like telling a student in the coffee mug experiment, “oh, by the way, we drew your name out of the hat for a coffee mug, so it was yours, technically — but then we decided we’d rather give it to Mike, and you were never told it was yours.” There’s no present ownership at question. Can an endowment effect exist anyway? I’m not sure. (Mike? Frank?)
To the extent that endowment effects require present ownership, then this idea probably fails. Our LDS woman has never enjoyed present possession of broader ecclesiastical roles. But to the extent that endowment effects can operate retroactively, our LDS woman may feel that something that was rightfully hers — something she should have owned — was taken away. And if she feels that her property has been taken away, then behavioral theory suggests that she will be less satisfied than if she had never gotten the property to begin with.
(Hmm — I wonder if this narrative actually plays out in the experience of Mormon feminists. An empirical study might be helpful. But are there any empiricists who know any Mormon feminists . . . ?)