Philip Tetlock may well be my favorite political psychologist. He has a fantastic article surveying his research on political taboos in Elements of Reason, edited by Lupia, McCubbins, and Popkin. Tetlock asks:

Are taboo trade-offs “taboo” in the primal Polynesian sense of the term: (a) rooted in unreasoning aversion; (b) extraordinarily resistant to change; and (c) capable of contaminating anyone or anything associated with violations of the taboo?

He summarizes two lines of research on taboos:

One set of studies investigated whether taboos are pure affect or are rooted in cause-and-effect beliefs about utilitarian consequences.

Test cases: Markets for organs and markets for adoption. 90% surveyed are against. Duh. But what happens if you ask people their reasons, and modify the proposal to deal with their objections? The main complaints: The rich get the organs and the babies; the poor will sell organs and babies out of desperation; and there might be other non-market solutions to existing problems.

But what if you bend over backwards to meet these objections? Tetlock asked respondents if they would still be against if (a) The poor had organ/baby vouchers; (b) Everyone had a high guaranteed minimum income; (c) Every non-market method had failed? Even if you stack the deck, a substantial majority – 60% – still oppose organ/baby markets. There’s just no pleasing most people.

The other line of research on political taboos…

examined the issue of contamination by assessing whether we could transform previously popular politicians into objects of scorn by revealing that their decision process violated the taboo proscription…

One neat study starts by classifying students as pro-choice, pro-life, or ambivalent. It then examines how these groups respond to politicians who make different kinds of pro-life and pro-choice arguments:

1. “denying that any trade-off was involved whatsoever”

2. “acknowledging that the trade-off existed and that there was uncertainty about the right answer”

3. “acknowledging the highly complex nature of the trade-off involved by noting not only the legitimacy of conflicting sentiments but by specifying philosophical perspectives that should incline us” one way or the other

The findings:

First, the more complex the trade-off rationale that a politician offers, the less trusted and respected the politician is by those on the politician’s side. We call this the “traitor” effect…. Second, offering a complex trade-off rationale… does not gain the politician much approval from the other side, even though the politician acknowledges the legitimacy of their perspective. If anything there is a trend in the opposition direction. Third, practitioners of complex trade-off rhetoric do at least enjoy an advantage among people who are “deeply ambivalent”…

Are all “taboos” silly? I think not. It isn’t right to murder innocent people for their organs, even if it would save lots of lives. Spare me your “complex trade-off rhetoric,” you won’t change my mind. But are a lot of popular taboos silly? Absolutely. Markets for organs and adoptions are common decency as well as common sense.

In any case, even if you cling to popular taboos against markets for organs and adoptions, Tetlock has more than a thing or two to teach economists about the politics of trade-offs.