A favourite TiB topic is the long-run impact of historical events. We’ve talked about the persistent effects of the Cultural Revolution
, the Reformation
, the teachings of the Catholic Church
, and living at the frontier
, among others. One way of thinking about this phenomenon is that if the consequences of major - particularly institutional - change today persist for many generations, perhaps we should put more effort into trying to shape the values of our descendants through this mechanism. That’s the starting point for Jaime Sevilla’s excellent study
of seven papers that purport to show multi-generational effects (thanks Sam for the link). This link
has a more informal write up.
Sevilla asks two questions. First, are the reported effects real or spurious? Second, if they are real, can we identify the causal mechanism? The answers are a mixed bag. Some papers fall apart under deeper investigation, but on balance Sevilla concludes that there is evidence for persistent, if relatively small, effects. He estimates that every unit that values shift by today might produce an effect 10% as strong in future generations. (It’s worth noting that Sevilla is a model of rigour and intellectual honesty; he flags up front that he started with a strong bias against finding evidence of long-run effect, but “reluctantly changed [his] mind")
The question of the causal mechanism is less clear. Sevilla finds that most of the papers he reviews fail to identify the mechanism of persistence. The best guess seems to be simply cultural transmission via parents teaching children down the generations, but there’s also the possibility that institutions “lock in” values in some way. As Sevilla says, there are many unanswered questions for those who would seek to shape the future in this way: how long do such effects last? do they weaken over time? can these kinds of effects be created deliberately? I hope we’ll see more research in this space.