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What if a Recovery Is All in Your Head?

What's Next?
What's Next?

Beyond fiscal stimulus and government bailouts, the economic recovery that appears under way may be based on little more than self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consider this possibility: after all these months, people start to think it’s time for the recession to end. The very thought begins to renew confidence, and some people start spending again — in turn, generating visible signs of recovery. This may seem absurd, and is rarely mentioned as an explanation for mass behavior late in a recession, but economic theorists have long been fascinated by such a possibility.

The notion isn’t as farfetched as it may appear. As we all know, recessions generally last no more than a couple of years. The current recession began in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, so it is almost two years old. According to the standard schedule, we’re due for recovery. Given this knowledge, the mere passage of time may spur our confidence, though no formal statistical analysis can prove it.

Certainly, people did not always believe that there is a regular “business cycle” that starts and stops in a definite pattern. The idea began to spread in the popular consciousness in the 1920s and reached full bloom in the ’30s — with one major complication, the Great Depression, which received its name in midcourse, from a 1934 book with that title by Lionel Robbins.

“There have been many depressions in modern economic history, but it is safe to say that there has never been anything to compare with this,” Mr. Robbins wrote. In his narrative, the Great Depression was an extreme event, compared with ordinary “depressions.”

“Recession,” a kinder, gentler term, began to be used around the time of the 1937-38 contraction to refer to a normal downturn in the business cycle. In January 1938, The Chicago Daily Tribune offered a wry definition of a recession, calling it “a new word for depression, coined by those who don’t like to admit that we’re still in one.”

People joked so much about the euphemism that in 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “It makes no difference to me whether you call it a recession or a depression.”

The proliferation of the idea of a more-or-less predictable business cycle intersected with a rapidly growing public interest in psychology. Choice of words can matter greatly for the psychologically aware, and the new word “recession” had a much softer sound than its predecessor. Recessions, as the term came to be used, implied timetables that mark their expected end. Uttering the word does not risk damaging confidence, at least not fundamentally. A diagnosis of a recession can be shrugged off as something from which you will recover, as though your doctor had just diagnosed an illness as a common cold. A depression came to be another matter entirely.

Back in 1931, for example, The New York Times attributed the emerging economic cataclysm to a “mood of pessimism which had been carried to grotesque extremes.” In 1932, it compared reckless talk about “depression” to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

President Roosevelt is widely remembered for saying, in 1933, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But he was only repeating an oft-told message.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the Columbia University sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote an article in The Antioch Review titled “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy,” using the Great Depression as his first example. He is often credited with having invented the “self-fulfilling prophesy” phrase, but by the 1930s the idea was already as commonplace as the breakfast toast made with modern electric toasters. (Interestingly, the same Robert Merton documented the tendency for important ideas to be falsely attributed to celebrities.)

In fact, in 1937, “Think and Grow Rich,” a book by Napoleon Hill, urged readers to adopt a positive mental attitude and to channel the power of the subconscious mind so that real wealth would follow. It became a runaway best seller. Faddish interest had already emerged not only in Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind, but also in the theories of the psychologist Émile Coué, who urged people to recite that “every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” He said this “autosuggestion” would bolster the unconscious self.

In important ways, we are still using that 1930s pattern of thinking. We are instinctively fearful of reckless talk about depressions, and we try to support one another’s confidence. We like the idea that modern scientific economics seems to show that all recessions end in due course.

For now, our common efforts at building confidence appear to be working somewhat. But the economy has still not recovered, by any means.

COUÉISM has been discredited generally, as has much of the old business-cycle theory, but they live on in our popular notions about recessions. We may hope that our resorting to euphemism and belief in timetables of business-cycle recoveries work better to restore confidence than they did in the ’30s.

The problem might be put this way: There is still a nagging doubt afloat that the current event is really just another example in that long sequence of recessions. In which mental category does the current contraction belong: recession or depression? We may still be at a tipping point. To the extent that the theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy is correct, there is a case for continued vigilance, to ensure that adverse events don’t encourage widespread talk of the second category.

Robert J. Shiller is professor of economics and finance at Yale and co-founder and chief economist of MacroMarkets LLC.

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