Proposal preview

The Causes and Consequences of Historic Differences in Cultural Values


Eric Chaney (Harvard University) “Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science”

Jeanet Bentzen (University of Copenhagen): “The Power of Religion: Political Origins of Organized Religion Across World Societies”

Paola Giuliano (UCLA): “Ancestral Characteristics of Modern Populations”

Martin Fiszbein (Boston University): “Cultural Persistence: The History and Legacy of the American Frontier”


Theories on the causes and consequences of cultural values are numerous with scholars from sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science contributing greatly. Empirical research on the topic, though, has long been restricted by data availability and methodology. Recently, the empirical investigation of the causes and consequences of cultural values has spurred due to increased availability of data on cultural values and historic factors in general. For instance, Chaney (Econometrica 2013) shows that deviant Nile shocks increased the political power of religious leaders, which helps explain the historical resilience of autocratic institutions. Butler, Giuliano, and Guiso (JEEA 2014) show that both too little and too much trust can hamper individual income as much as foregone college education. Andersen, Bentzen, Dalgaard, and Sharp (EJ 2017) document that the cultural values that Max Weber stressed as originating with the Protestant Reformation had a pre-reformation origin; the Catholic Order of Cistercians established in 1100. These contributions are all authored or co-authored by presenters of the current panel, but the literature of course extends beyond these panel presenters, illustrated by the various papers summarizing the literature on the causes and consequences of cultural values within economics (e.g., Guiso et al 2006, Fernandez 2011, Nunn 2012, Alesina and Giuliano 2015, Becker et al 2016).

The persuasiveness of the empirical investigations greatly depends on the authors’ creative ability to seek out information on historic cultural values from various available sources, but also on the methodology used to establish causality. This session presents new techniques to reach both goals. For instance, Chaney measures historic scientific output by the proportion of books dedicated to scientific topics and shows that this proportion has fallen over the period 1100-1800. He then documents that the fall coincides with the establishment of religious schools (madrasas), both across time and geographic space. Giuliano (together with Nathan Nunn) uses the Ethnographic Atlas gathered by ethnographers to construct a database of characteristics of the ancestors of the world’s populations. The Ethnographic Atlas holds information on 1265 primitive societies scattered across the globe measured before European contact. The information ranges from societal complexity, over resource dependency to the degree of religious beliefs. Giuliano and Nunn link ethnographic atlas to current language groups and thus are able to extend the information from the Atlas to the entire globe. Bentzen (together with Gunes Gokmen) uses the Ethnographic Atlas to show that the prevalence of powerful elites made beliefs in high Gods more likely to occur in historic societies. To establish causality, Bentzen and Gunes exploit findings by Bentzen et al (JEEA 2017) that specific past agricultural practices increased the emergence of powerful elites. Fiszbein (together with Bazzi and Gebresilasse) combines historic census data with GIS techniques to identify the impact of being located on the frontier splitting the US into inhabited lands and no mans’ lands between 1790 and 1890. They find evidence that longer frontier exposure is associated with higher individualism both historically and today as theorized by Turner (1893). Measuring individualism is based on the share of unique names among children and revealed behavior.

The four papers in this session attempt to take the empirical literature further by providing new techniques and inspiration to investigate the causes and consequences of cultural values. All presenters and discussants have agreed to participate.


  • Jeanet Bentzen, University of Copenhagen,, Denmark

Session members

  • Eric Chaney, Harvard University,
  • Paola Giuliano, UCLA,
  • Jeanet Bentzen, University of Copenhagen,
  • Martin Fiszbein, Boston University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Nathan Nunn, Harvard University,
  • Stelios Michalopoulos, Brown University,
  • Sascha Becker, Warwick University,
  • Jared Rubin, Chapman University,