Personality and Roots of Welfare State Support: How Openness to Experience Moderates the Influence of Self-Interest and Ideology on Redistributive Preferences

Tobias Heide-Jørgensen, University of Copenhagen

Peter Thisted Dinesen, University of Copenhagen

Kim Mannemar Sønderskov, Aarhus University

Why do people disagree strongly over how much the government should redistribute economic resources? This is an important question if we want to understand the foundation and dynamics of support for the welfare state, which has income redistribution as one of its main functions. One dominant perspective in the literature emphasizes the role of ideology when people form political attitudes, in general, and toward redistribution more specifically. Another, and typically rivalling perspective, highlights people’s economic self-interest as the prime reason for their support or opposition to government efforts to reduce differences in income levels. However, both perspectives have been questioned, as research finds that people are generally neither very likely to hold ideologically consistent and stable attitudes nor to be motivated by material self-interest when they make up their mind politically. 

Building on personality research, we argue in the article that individual differences are important for understanding whether people base their attitudes toward redistribution on ideology or self-interest. Specifically, we theorize that people who are high in the Big Five personality trait openness to experience rely more on ideology when forming attitudes toward redistribution and less on their own material interests. And vice versa for individuals who are low in openness and therefore more close-minded. We base this on previous work showing that open people are analytical, creative, and philosophical—traits that should promote an abstract and ideational approach to politics—whereas close-minded individuals are risk averse and uncertainty intolerant and therefore likely to be motivated by tangible economic circumstances when forming attitudes toward redistribution.

We test our claims using high-quality Danish registry data on income linked to panel survey data on political attitudes, ideological orientations, and personality. This allows us to analyze how the relationship between people’s self-interest (measured by their actual income), ideology (measured by left-right self-placement), and their support for redistribution depends on their level of openness. Because we use panel data, we are able to study this longitudinally and can thereby address many potential sources of confounding. 

Consistent with our argument, we find that increasing income only leads to lower support for income redistribution among close-minded individuals and that the link between left-right orientations and redistributive preferences is stronger for people with a highly open personality. We find tentative but less consistent evidence for the same patterns using American survey data.

The findings have two important implications. First, we show that both self-interest and ideology matter for people’s attitudes toward redistribution but not for the same kinds of people. Those most likely to think in terms of their ideological inclinations will generally not be the ones that are motivated by material self-interest, and vice versa. We think that this finding might help bridge material and ideational perspectives on political behavior. Second, the article contributes to work on the political significance of personality differences. In line with some recent research, we show that personality is not only important as a determinant in itself but might also condition the influence of other more classical predictors of political behavior. This highlights the need to take differences in personality seriously not only in political psychology but also in the study of political behavior and in political science more broadly.

Racial Spillover in Political Attitudes: Generalizing to a New Leader and Context

Randy Besco, University of Toronto Mississauga

J. Scott Matthews, Memorial University

As Western European and North American societies have diversified in racial and ethnic terms, so have their political systems. Increasing numbers of racialized persons have entered electoral politics in these countries, despite pervasive racism and discrimination in politics and beyond. What happens when racialized politicians ascend to the highest levels of politics to become party leaders?

Michael Tesler’s research on “racial spillover” has shown how the race of a political leader connects racial attitudes to previously non-racialized policies.  Most famously, Barack Obama’s high-profile advocacy for the Affordable Care Act led to the linking of racial attitudes to views of healthcare, a policy in relation to which no attitudinal link previously existed. Tesler and others have observed this dynamic in many policy areas, including climate change, emergency management, and tax policy. 

Does racial spillover generalize beyond the “Obama case”? Obama, and the United States generally, are exceptional in important ways: Obama held the highest political office, and race has structured the political system for generations. 

In our research, we examine the case of Jagmeet Singh, the South Asian leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) and the country’s first non-white leader of a major political party at the national level. The NDP is a left-wing third party, which has never formed government nationally but has been established for decades and has governed several provinces over its history. In Canada, South Asians are the largest minority group (~6%) and Sikhs, like Singh, in particular are politically successful. While race is less politically salient in Canada than in the US, in recent years some 30% of Canadians have been found to oppose multiculturalism and as many as 37% say they would not vote for a Sikh politician. 

Left to right: Canada’s party leaders in 2019: Conservative Leader Andrew Sheer, 
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Using a survey experiment in a module of the 2019 Canadian Election Study (CES), we asked respondents about support for five policies, randomizing whether the policy was described as proposed by “the NDP” or “Jagmeet Singh and the NDP”, with accompanying pictures. The results show clear evidence of racial spillover: respondents low on a thermometer measure of feelings toward racial minorities are less supportive of policies when they are proposed by Jagmeet Singh. 

In additional analyses, we show clear racial spillover effects among partisans on the left but not the right. This is consistent with Tesler’s finding of effects on health care attitudes among Democrats. In terms of specific policies, there is evidence of racial spillover on both new policies (a proposed ban on single-use plastics) and old ones (proposed reforms to employment insurance), but not already-racialized issues (a proposal to remove racist posts on social media). 

Finally, we used CES data over 31 years to examine racial spillover to views of the NDP. Looking at the correlation of the racial thermometer and NDP thermometer, we find a sharp increase in 2019, when Jagmeet Singh became leader. In fact, the coefficient is 50-100% larger than previous years – a pattern that survives extensive controls. Using an alternative measure of racial attitudes we show similar results, and also find the pattern emerges in both phone and online surveys. 

Overall, we argue racial spillover should apply to a wide range of political contexts, including when the party leader is less prominent and race is less salient as a dimension of political conflict. 

The results also point to a series of questions for future research. For example, what is the effect of prominent non-leader politicians, like cabinet ministers Cem Özdemir in Germany and Rishi Sunak in the United Kingdom? Why does there seem to be no racial spillover among right-wing partisans? How does racial spillover function in coalition governments? Is racial spillover permanent, or does it fade after a leader retires? Clearly, there is a range of important questions remaining in this area.    

The Role of Public Broadcasting in Media Bias: Do People React Differently to Pro-Government Bias in Public and Private Media?

Taka-aki Asano, The University of Tokyo

Atsushi Tago, Waseda University

Seiki Tanaka, University of Groningen

Public broadcasting under attack

NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai or the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) is the Japanese public broadcasting service. Despite its mission to appeal to all citizens, NHK has recently been criticized for its biased coverage in favor of the LDP-Komeito government and for its boring content (except sumo) geared to older viewers. Although all owners of TV sets in Japan are obliged to pay subscription fees for NHK, some have been trying to avoid payment. Growing discontent with NHK even led to the launching of a new political party in 2013— “The Party to Protect the People from NHK” has a representative in the Upper House. 

Discontent with public broadcasting is of course not confined to Japan. The venerable BBC has long sustained criticism of its allegedly liberal slant, with Boris Johnson christening it the “Brexit-Bashing Corporation.” In the Netherlands, two far-right parties, the Freedom Party and the Democratic Forum, have helped launch a TV station, Ongehoord Nederland (The Unheard Netherlands). According to Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, the new station provides “an important antidote to the current public broadcasting system” which is “one big fake news factory.”

In Eastern Europe, it is not populists in opposition but governments that have tightened the screws on public broadcasting. Under Viktor Orban, Hungarian state media, MTVA, has become a government mouthpieceSo has the Polish public broadcaster TVP under the Law and Justice party. Even its own journalists admit “You will not find true information in our television.”

Impact of biased media content

Our recently published paper in Political Behavior examined how people perceive biased content emanating from public broadcasters. Despite growing criticism of public broadcasters around the world, many people still expect them to be providers of unbiased news. Are people more likely to believe news from public media, even when it is biased? Or are they more likely to reject biased content from public broadcasters? We first conducted a text analysis of Japanese television programs broadcast by NHK and five leading private TV stations between 2001 and 2015. We found that despite widespread criticism, NHK covers topics from more diverse points of view and tends to be more neutral than private television. A series of surveys, including our own in 2019, also found that the Japanese public expects NHK to be neutral. This implies that public media coverage is still seen as a public good, that it should address all citizens and not exclude points of view, including those critical of the government—a normative idea that influences how people evaluate public media content. 

To test how the expectation of neutrality influences the evaluation of biased information, we conducted a survey experiment using a hypothetical news item biased in favor of the conservative government, which we randomly attributed to NHK, to a right-wing private TV station and to a left-wing private TV station. Our experiment yielded three main findings. First, we found that Japanese respondents tend to be averse to pro-government bias and distrustful of information that overtly praises the government. Second, we found that the reasons for rejecting pro-government bias vary by type of media—public or private. For public media, the expectation of neutrality matters: those who expected NHK to be neutral more often rejected biased information. Third, for private media, it is individual political ideology that most colors perceptions of bias. Left-leaning individuals were more likely to reject pro-government bias than their right-leaning counterparts (as the government is right-wing, the ideological gap between the biased information and right-leaning respondents’ ideology was narrower). Overall, people rejected media content when it deviated from their expectations. From public broadcasters, individuals rejected coverage that is not neutral. From private broadcasters, they rejected coverage that does not confirm their pre-existing beliefs.

A caveat is that our findings stem from a specific time and place. They would more likely hold in countries where public broadcasters are independent of the government and expected to be neutral (this expectation differs from perceived or actual bias). We especially expect media independence to affect public perceptions of neutrality. If a country’s public media is not independent, the public would be less inclined to believe that it would or should be neutral.

Why maintaining neutrality is important

While frustration with public media is growing around the world, our study suggests that this frustration can in part be traced to expectations of neutrality. More importantly, the expectation of neutrality affects how people evaluate public media content. 

With the internet and social media, the impact of fake news including misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information purposely spread to deceive) is growing in Western democracies and worldwide. With partisan polarization in the use and trust of media sourcespeople are simply tuning out from programming they do not like

It is within this context that public broadcasting can still play a role as a neutral, reliable provider of information in the 21st century. Citizens in democracies still expect public broadcasting to be neutral. This should incentivize public media and governments to provide reliable, unbiased information.

Media freedom in Japan is deteriorating. According to Reporters Without Borders, Japan was 67th in the world in 2020. Fumio Kishida was elected as the 101st prime minister of Japan in November 2021. His predecessors, particularly Shinzo Abe, were criticized for undermining media independence (for example, here and here). Many suspected that especially NHK had been forced to toe the Abe administration’s line. While Kishida may or may not adopt such heavy-handed tactics, our study shows that the public expects NHK to be neutral and that government intervention to influence news content is not as effective as political leaders seem to believe. Government intervention will undermine perceptions of (public) media neutrality, ultimately leading to people losing trust in the public broadcaster as a news provider and undermining the government’s own ability to address the spread of misinformation and disinformation.

Christian Nationalism and Political Violence: Victimhood, Racial Identity, Conspiracy, and Support for the Capitol Attacks

Miles T. Armaly, University of Mississippi

David T. Buckley, University of Louisville

Adam M. Enders, University of Louisville

What explains popular support for political violence in the contemporary United States, particularly the anti-institutional mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol in January 2021? While rioters utilized a wide variety of symbols and slogans in the planning and execution of those attacks, religious motifs were a regular fixture of what one reporter labeled “a Christian insurrection.” Religion’s appearance that afternoon was not unexpected, as prominent religious supporters of the Trump Administration framed electoral defeat as an anti-religious conspiracy even before the November election. In the days before the Capitol violence, supporters launched a “Jericho March” against alleged electoral fraud, intended to imitate the biblical siege of Jericho by Israelite forces.

In this paper, we examine the impact of Christian nationalism––an ideology which blends religious understanding of America’s origins with nearly “apocalyptic” views on future threats to that Christian heritage––on support for the Capitol riot and political violence, more generally. In doing so, we advance a two-part theory. First, we expect an independent link between Christian nationalism and support for political violence, including the right-wing violence in the wake of Trump’s electoral defeat. Second, because robust research on religion and violence suggests that “extreme” religious beliefs are incomplete explanations of support for or participation in political violence, we argue that the effect of an ideology like Christian nationalism is likely to be conditioned by other individual characteristics that scholars have identified as particularly susceptible to elite cues. We focus on three such characteristics because of their links to threat perception and boundary construction: perceived victimhood, reinforcing racial and religious identity, and immersion in conspiratorial information sources.

We find support for both components of our theory. Not only do we observe a strong relationship between Christian nationalism and support for political violence, even controlling for religiosity and discrete religious identification, this relationship strengthens as feelings of victimhood, the strength of white identity, and the strength of one’s support for the QAnon movement increase. While support for the Capitol attacks is a minority position among any slice of the American religious landscape, the combination of characteristics most closely linked to support for violence occurs regularly. Indeed, 6% of whites in our sample, 11.5% of white evangelicals, and 17.7% of white weekly church goers fall into the joint top quartile of justification of violence, Christian nationalist beliefs, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for QAnon. 17.7% of white Americans who regularly attend religious services would represent millions of individuals––and also a far greater share of the white American population than surveys find when testing Muslim-American support for terrorism.

Our findings come with implications for governmental efforts to confront domestic extremism, which have received significant attention in the shadow of January 6. Perhaps most importantly, these efforts could repeat mistakes of earlier generations of policy designed to counter violent extremism, which tended to focus on religious ideology or beliefs in isolation. The results we present here suggest that efforts to promote “moderate” Christianity are likely to run into similar obstacles to twenty years of limited results from efforts to promote “moderate” Islam or mobilize government resources to win a “war of ideas” within Islam. Instead, religion’s impact on support for extremist violence is likely to be “interactive.” It is the combination of Christian nationalism with elite cues that inflame conspiracy beliefs, feelings of victimhood, and group identities that provides the recipe for violent action. Thus, not only do individual-level ideologies and personality characteristics matter, but so too do elite communications and behaviors.

Perceived Reciprocity and Democratic Threats

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

Jacob R. Neiheisel, SUNY-Buffalo

Once reserved for groups on the political margins, questions of whether to extend basic rights and liberties have entered the mainstream. The last several election cycles were filled with rhetoric raising the stakes of control over the federal government by threatening that the other side will move to strip the losing party of, effectively, their freedom to organize. In one August 2020 rant, then-President Trump asserted that a Democratic administration would “[t]ake away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God” (BBC 2020). This strikes at the heart of democratic politics which hinges on rights reciprocity – respecting others’ ability to express their grievances by voice and vote. Without a belief in reciprocity, there is little incentive to cooperate or afford the government any legitimacy. 

While reciprocity has been discussed in academic literature, it has had no explicit survey measure until now. In one particularly poignant example, Petersen et al. (2011) suggest that the reason some widely disliked groups are tolerated more than others is because they would reciprocate respect for others’ rights. They have no direct measure of this aside from the fact that tolerance of groups is still different even after controlling statistically for many determinants of tolerance though have pre-tests showing that some groups are perceived as being less likely to follow the rules of the democratic game. In effect, the remaining differences are the measure of a group’s reputation for respecting the rights of others. In this post, we assess this claim using a new measure of reciprocity that is set to debut in a forthcoming article in Political Behavior

Our measure of reciprocity is a simple one. After answering a least-liked group tolerance battery, we asked, “What if the tables were turned? Do you think that [your least-liked group] would respect your right to hold rallies, teach, speak, and run for office?” In several surveys, we asked this of only the least-liked group respondents selected. But in one we expanded the list to ask about the perceived reciprocity of a number of groups. 

Shown below in Figure 1, we split the results by partisanship to confirm how deeply divided the US is in 2020. Partisans perceive the lowest levels of reciprocity from their least-liked group (“L”), but the other party is not too far ahead and both are under water – Republicans believe Democrats (“D”) are not likely to respect their rights (the score is under .5) and Democrats believe about the same about Republicans (“R”). Conversely, partisans expect the most reciprocity from members of their own party. And, as has been often remarked, there is an asymmetry in how culture war groups are viewed – Democrats expect more reciprocity from “conservative Christians” than Republicans expect from atheists. 

Figure 1: Responsiveness of Expected Reciprocity to Partisan Ingroup/Outgroup Status. Source: 2016 Panel, June 2017 Wave. Note: A=Atheist, C=Christian conservative, D=Democrats in Congress, L=Least-liked group, R=Republicans in Congress.

Knowing the extent to which voters’ concerns for their rights have been activated may be consequential to their political behavior. But we are also care about how to classify and catalog the impact of this measure – is it distinct from existing concepts of group prejudice and threat?

We pursued these questions in several ways. It is not surprising that perceived reciprocity is correlated with both prejudice toward and threat expected from a group. It would be strange if it wasn’t. But reciprocity is much more strongly correlated with an existing threat measure – we used an index asking if the group was a threat to the respondent personally, to other people’s freedoms, and to the American way of life. Reciprocity is more strongly correlated to the latter two measures than it is to personal threat. In a model of political tolerance, we find that expected rights reciprocity is an important determinant with the same impact as variations in prejudice or education. It has a much stronger effect when the threat index is not in the model, but still has a statistically significant effect when the threat index is included. We take this evidence to mean that reciprocity is a heretofore unmeasured component of threat.

Given that these results were from cross-sectional data, we sought some additional tests to gain greater confidence that the link between reciprocity and tolerance is not spurious or just a reflection of tolerance judgments. Our data from 2016 were part of a panel that included tolerance and reciprocity judgments in multiple waves. We found that people who switched least-liked groups between panels shifted reciprocity to match the group’s reputation. That is, reciprocity dropped when the group had a worse reputation for reciprocity. Moreover, the change in reciprocity from wave 1 in September to wave 2 in November produced a corresponding shift in political tolerance even after controlling for shifts in the threat index and in prejudice.

Importantly, measures of which group an individual chose as his or her “least liked” continue to do a fair amount of work in predicting political tolerance even after taking into account whether members of such a group would respect the civil and political rights of others. To us this suggests that tolerance judgments are motivated, at least in part, by group animus as well as by concerns over whether members of such a group would respect others’ rights. 

Taken together, these findings complicate simple versions of the narrative that a principled intolerance—intolerance of those who refuse to respect the rights of others—is at the core of the public’s unwillingness to tolerate members of certain groups. They also raise a host of questions surrounding how it is that groups gain (or lose) a reputation for not engaging in rights reciprocity. With mediated representations of most groups being the only interaction that the average member of the general public will have with a member of their “least-liked” social group, are reciprocity judgments subject to distortions? What would it take for a group’s reputation to shift?   

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Jacob R. Neiheisel, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He very rarely tweets anything of note, but his account can be found here just the same.

Facts Shape Feelings: Information, Emotions, and the Political Consequences of Violence

Aidan Milliff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What makes violence political? Accumulated knowledge from political science, psychology, and criminology suggests that violence frequently leads to outcomes like political mobilization, revenge-taking, or spirals of conflict escalation. Violence generates grievances and anger, which, depending on the study, are causing such diverse outcomes as cycles of retribution and revenge (Costalli and Ruggeri, 2015; Balcells, 2017, and others), increased participation in politics (Bateson, 2012), withdrawal and skepticism toward government (Webster, 2017).

How can we reconcile these mixed findings and develop a clearer understanding of the relationship between victimization, anger, and the political consequences of violence? In “Facts Shape Feelings: Information, Emotions, and the Political Consequences of Violence,” a new article in Political Behavior, I focus on the middle link in this chain. I show that there is underappreciated variation in the emotional experiences of people exposed to potentially traumatic violence: people’s experiences are dominated by different emotions (not always anger), which they focus on different targets. This variation influences whether people attribute blame for the violence to perpetrators as individuals, or to the state and other political actors.

In the article, I analyze 31 original interviews with family members of homicide victims in Chicago, IL and find 1) that survivors of similar trauma express different levels of anger at different personal and political targets, and 2) there is a pattern in whose negative emotions have more political consequences.

I show that knowing particular information about the circumstances surrounding a relative’s homicide is associated with increased expression of anger toward the perpetrator as an individual, and with decreased prioritization of anger and blame targeted at political targets like the police, the city government, or the county prosecutor. People who can assemble clear understandings (I use the term “cognitive clarity”) about the perpetrator’s identity, motive, and culpability, are far more likely to target their anger at the perpetrator of violence. People who lack information about one or more of those categories might still feel angry, but their anger is more likely to diffuse toward political actors like the police or city government, even if they know the police are not the ones who perpetrated the homicide of their family member.

In addition to identifying patterns in how/when victims of violence express political vs. personal grievances, the article makes two methodological contributions. First, by comparing widely-used survey-style measures of anger to open ended discussions about anger and blame, I show that previous studies may be 1) conflating anger in response to violence with anger as a personality trait, and 2) conflating anger experiences that are directed at different targets and have different consequences for the angry person’s attitudes and behavior. In order to understand the political consequences of anger, I argue, future studies should at least measure blame when they are measuring anger.

Second, I demonstrate that unsupervised text analysis tools like topic models can be effectively used to present high-level patterns in even small corpora of sensitive text like the transcripts of in-depth interviews. I fit structural topic models (STM) to transcripts of my interviews in order to show patterns in respondents emotional experiences, attributions of blame, and access to information about their relative’s homicide. I take advantage of STM’s reliance on “bag of words”-style pre-processing to share replication data that makes the paper’s analysis reproducible, without sharing underlying natural language transcripts which are potentially identifiable and contain sensitive information.

The importance of cognitive clarity and the existence of variation in the emotion experiences of victims might extend far beyond Chicago. Evidence from Chicago shows that compelling “structural” narratives may not always match with the experiences of individual survivors of violence. One compelling way to understand homicide violence in Chicago, for example, is as a consequence of racism, structural inequity, and the “race-class subjugation” of communities where most deadly violence takes place (Weaver et al., 2020). Macro-level political narratives can be largely valid (Richie, 2012), but not all survivors of violence will use them to make sense of their experience. Even in other contexts where social scientists know why violence is happening, we should expect survivors’ responses to be highly variable and dependent on particular set of information that they can or cannot assemble to explain what has happened to them.

Do Public Consultations Reduce Blame Attribution? The Impact of Consultation Characteristics, Gender, and Gender Attitudes

Anthony Kevins, Loughborough University

Barbara Vis, Utrecht University

Politicians regularly have to make decisions that may end up backfiring. As a result, evading blame for any negative consequences of those decisions is a key goal for elected representatives – especially if they’d like to be re-elected. 

One way to try to minimize potential blame is to bring other people – such as opposition politicians, experts, or voters – into the decision-making process. In the current context, we need only think of the prominent role given to public health experts by prime ministers and presidents to get a sense for how popular this approach might be. But notwithstanding any inherent benefits and drawbacks of collective decision-making, doing so may help politicians by making it harder for citizens to pin down any responsibility later on. 

Building on this logic, public consultations – gatherings organized to solicit constituent opinions – may be an effective tool for politicians looking to avoid blame. But do they actually affect blame attribution? And if they do, what sorts of factors shape how effective consultations are at pre-empting blame? We examine these questions in a new article in Political Behavior, which uses two pre-registered survey experiments on nationally representative US samples to investigate the effect of: (1) consultation characteristics, e.g., whether or not the politician aligns their decision with constituent opinion; and (2) politician and constituent characteristics, e.g., the politician’s gender and constituents’ gender attitudes. 

In Study 1, we presented respondents with a vignette describing a city council decision to cut funding for a homeless shelter, which ultimately resulted in the death of two homeless people during a cold snap. Respondents randomly read either about a decision taken unilaterally by a mayor (the control), or a post-consultation decision the mayor took that either went against constituent opinion (listen and explain) or was in line with it (listen, explain, and align). We also considered, among other factors, the effect of varying the mayor’s gender (male versus female). Next, we presented the experimental treatments and outlined the potentially blame-worthy consequences. Finally, we measured our outcome: blame attribution. 

Study 1 – Predicted Values of Blame Attribution, Overall Effects and by Mayor’s Gender   

Note: All figures show mean responses with 83.5 percent confidence intervals, such that a lack of overlapping confidence intervals indicates statistical significance at the p < 0.05 level. Coefficients and levels of statistical significance (indicating differences relative to the corresponding control group) are also included. * p<0.05; ** p<0.01; *** p<0.001

Findings suggest that consultations shape blame attribution, but that gender does not. Panel A shows that respondents’ blame attribution levels were lower when the mayor listened, explained, and aligned their position with consultation participants’ preferences. Yet when the mayor’s position did not align with the majority, there was no such effect. Moreover, Panel B shows that there is no effect of the mayor’s gender in and of itself – a result that is consistent regardless of respondents’ hostile sexism levels. 

Study 2 then replicated Study 1 with a few important changes: it focuses on an issue that is less partisan-colored (flood-damage prevention instead of homeless shelter funding); it included more gender cues, to ensure that respondents were noticing the mayor’s gender; and it incorporated a distinction between incidental alignment (i.e., participants at the public consultation happened to agree with the mayor’s plan) and active alignment (i.e., the mayor changed course to align their plan with participant opinion). Results broadly replicated those of Study 1, so we focus here on Study 2’s novel components. 

Study 2 – Predicted Values of Blame Attribution, by (Non-)Adaptation and Mayor’s Gender

Does it matter whether the mayor changed course or simply pushed forward with their initial proposal? Panel A suggests that it does, since respondents tended to assign less blame to politicians who changed course – yet this is the case regardless of whether or not they consulted the population. Our results also reveal substantial variation where the politician’s decision did not align with constituent opinion: within the listen and explain treatment group, active dis-alignment (i.e., changing course where the population was supportive of the mayor’s initial stance) was linked to greater blame relative to the control, whereas we find no effect in cases of passive dis-alignment (i.e., staying course even though the population disagrees with the mayor’s stance). 

Finally, it’s also worth noting that despite the stronger gender cues in Study 2, we still find no evidence that blame attribution increases when the mayor is a woman rather than a man. As Panel B illustrates, we see only modest differences in consultation effects based on the mayor’s gender. Further corroborating Study 1’s results, Study 2 also finds little evidence of a connection between hostile sexism and blame attribution. 

Overall, our two studies show that public consultations may well, under specific conditions, reduce blame attribution – thus helping politicians to potentially avoid being blamed for decisions that end up backfiring. As long as participant opinion isn’t actively opposed to the mayor’s final decision, people seem less inclined to blame an elected representative who holds a public consultation on the issue.

Interestingly, this suggests that although public consultations are regularly praised for their potential to improve democratic quality, they may also serve as an effective anticipatory blame avoidance strategy: by muddying clarity of responsibility, voters may be less inclined to point the finger at the politician who took the decision. It is also striking that these dynamics seem to play out similarly regardless of the elected representative’s gender and the respondents’ gender attitudes. Our findings thereby broadly align with research suggesting that gender-related characteristics may have less widespread effects on reactions to scandals and controversies than is sometimes assumed. 

You Must Pay No Matter What: Moral Taboo and International Debt

Alessandro Del Ponte, Yale University

Peter DeScioli, Stony Brook University

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Matthew 6:12, King James Bible, 1611

In an economic crisis, must a government repay its international debts even if it means cutting programs when citizens need them most? Governments struggled with this dilemma during recent crises in Greece, Argentina, Iceland, and other countries. The question is not only about economics: costs, benefits, credit, reputation. It’s also about morality: the obligation to repay and the obligation to care for citizens. 

When emboldened by moral righteousness, people stray far from ordinary considerations like costs, benefits, harm, compromise, and happiness. That’s why in so many cultures moralists condemn, punish, and even execute people for benign offenses such as premarital sex, dancing, homosexuality, eating the wrong animal, believing in the wrong gods, drawing the wrong cartoon, and so on. Human morality seethes with taboos—actions that are forbidden or obligatory, no matter what. And taboos collide to create dilemmas: Should you lie to protect someone you love? Should you take money from the rich to help the poor? Should you kill one person to save five?

We wanted to know how people judge moral dilemmas of international debt. How strong is the moral taboo against defaulting on a debt? To find out, participants read a hypothetical dilemma where a country suffers from an economic crisis and the government cannot repay its international debt unless it cuts government jobs. If the government defaults, then the lender country will have to cut jobs due to the missing funds but not as many as the debtor country. The dilemma is analogous to the trolley problem from moral philosophy, in which someone must decide whether to kill one person to save five people. In this case, the debtor decides whether to default on the debt to save 6,000 jobs at home, while causing 5,000 job losses in the lender country. This means that the debtor stands to lose 1.2 times more jobs than the lender, creating a dilemma between saving more jobs versus meeting the moral obligation to repay. Participants answered what the government should do, and whether each choice is morally wrong and deserves punishment.

We found that 72% of participants opposed default and said the government must repay (Figure 1, 1.2x condition).  Thus, we see the signs of a taboo: Participants opposed default even when it would do more good.

To gauge the strength of the taboo, we varied the debtor’s job losses across conditions. The debtor would lose 6,000, 10,000, 25,000, or 100,000 jobs, while holding constant the creditor’s losses at 5,000 jobs. This varies the ratio of damage to the debtor relative to the creditor, such that the debtor’s losses are 1.2x, 2x, 5x, or 20x those of the creditor. We also manipulated whether the government was deciding whether to fully default or to partially default by repaying half of what they owe. 

Figure 1. Percentage of participants who opposed default. Judgments are shown by the ratio of potential damage to the debtor relative to the lender and by whether the required default was full or partial. The line at 50% indicates the majority tendency; the percentages statistically differed from 50% except for the 2x/full and 5x/partial conditions.

Most participants still opposed default when the debtor’s job losses were twice the lender. As the debtor’s job losses grew to 5 times and 20 times the lender’s, participants became less opposed. But even when the debtor had 100,000 jobs at stake (20x), 39% of participants said the government must repay (Figure 1). Also, participants were less opposed to default when it was partial. This supports the idea that partially repaying shows the debtor’s good intentions and thus lessens the moral violation. More generally, this fits the idea that taboos depend on the nature of the action, including the intentions behind it, separate from the consequences.   

Participants’ moral judgments were different. Most participants judged that defaulting was wrong and punishable with little change as the debtor’s job losses increased. Many of these participants supported default even though they judged it to be morally wrong, presumably because they saw it as the lesser evil. In contrast, participants judged that the partial default is less morally wrong than the full default. These results show more signs of taboo: participants’ moral judgments depended little on the consequences but they did depend on the nature of the action, whether the default was full or partial.

In their comments, participants who opposed default emphasized the moral obligation to repay, using more deontic words: must, have to, need to, promise, commitment, contract, responsibility, agreement, obligation, fulfill, honor, owe, and duty. They wrote: “debts must be repaid,” “they have to honor the agreement,” ” and the debtor “should have to repay its debt no matter what.” Participants who supported default weighed the consequences of each choice, using more comparative words: less, more, better, worse, than, least, few, many, greater, number, and amount. Examples include: “I tried to minimize the job loss,” “I based it on the concept of greater good,” “Better for 5,000 people to lose their jobs than 100,000,” and  “I tried to get as few people affected as possible.”

We also look at political ideology by presenting the dilemmas to a national sample of Americans. Conservatives and Republicans were more stiffly opposed to default than liberals and Democrats. Still, most Americans across the political spectrum agreed that defaulting is morally wrong, even those who supported it. This suggests that liberals and conservatives share a moral code on debt, even if they adhere to it differently. 

Generally, these experiments illustrate how moral taboos can stand in the way of public welfare when they are at odds with better consequences. Taboos against default, amplified by ideology and partisanship, could thwart policies that would improve the greater good. Under the eye of morality, even economic issues like defaulting on a debt can become a sin to condemn at all costs.

Altruism and Spite in Politics: How the Mind Makes Welfare Tradeoffs about Political Parties

Alessandro Del Ponte, Yale University

Andrew Delton, Stony Brook University

Peter DeScioli, Stony Brook University

How much would you sacrifice to help your political party? When the news reports long lines at the polls, some voters persevere and some stay home. Similarly, when the party’s leaders falter—abandon principles, mishandle a crisis, commit crimes—some members endure the shame and carry on, while others turn against the leaders. Citizens also make tradeoffs to hurt the opposing party. When the opponents take our rights and flout our values, some citizens charge in protests while others cautiously let the anger pass. What’s the difference, and how do people make these tradeoffs? 

The answer, we suggest, is found in ratios, like the ones in music, painting, and mechanics. The ratios for parties are in the citizen’s mind: the ratio of the cost to the person compared to the benefit to the party. It’s the price you would pay to help or hurt a party, not only in dollars but also in time, effort, danger, and reputation. The mind uses this ratio to make tradeoffs, so it may be called a welfare tradeoff ratio, or tradeoff ratio, for short.

Tradeoff ratios are distinct from the mental processes found in traditional theories of partisanship, including theories rooted in attachment, identity, self-interest, attitudes, heuristics, and irrational emotions. For instance, theories about irrational attachments to a group do not say how these attachments factor into tradeoffs; the attachment would need to be a quantity stored in the mind if it is to be weighed against other quantities. The closest theories are about social preferences, such as preferences for fairness, altruism, and punishment. But tradeoff ratios are not general preferences that someone applies to everyone. We have specific ratios for each person and group, and they change as our relationships change.

The idea of tradeoff ratios comes from previous research on the psychology of interpersonal cooperation. The mind has special psychological abilities for making decisions that affect other people. Friends decide whether to help each other, parents decide how much to sacrifice for their children, and leaders decide whose interests to prioritize. To make these choices, the mind intuitively computes how much it is worth to help or hurt specific individuals, summarized by a cognitive variable, the tradeoff ratio. These computations are mostly unconscious, automatic, quick, and effortless, like the mind’s computations of color, depth, or the meaning of speech. People experience these computations as vague feelings, but the underlying cognition is precise and sophisticated, again like vision and language. To guide decisions, the mind uses tradeoff ratios to weigh another person’s welfare compared to our own.

So is helping political parties like helping people? To find out, we conducted experiments in which participants decided whether to sacrifice their own money to give or take money from a party. They made dozens of these decisions with varying costs in a random order. We wanted to know whether participants would make choices that are consistent with a distinct tradeoff ratio for each party, rather than choosing haphazardly based on vague feelings. In two experiments, participants’ tradeoffs were highly consistent with a distinct ratio (~90% consistent on average), despite making dozens of decisions in a random order. Moreover, participants’ ratios correlated in the expected directions with partisanship, political ideology, and feelings of enthusiasm and anger toward each party, corroborating that these ratios are politically meaningful.

In general, over 90% of partisans helped a party at a cost to themselves. And a substantial minority sacrificed money to spite their own party, illustrating the tension that some citizens feel toward their own party. Roughly 40% paid a cost (usually smaller amounts) to help the outparty, suggesting that these citizens feel at least some generosity toward both parties. At the other extreme, a quarter to a third of participants would pay any amount to harm the outparty, up to the maximum of sacrificing $100 to prevent the party from gaining $50 (more specifically, the chance of winning these amounts in a lottery). Overall, these findings echo other research finding that a fraction of polarized Americans coexists with a majority of moderate citizens. 

These findings may help transcend the traditional debates about whether voters are rational or irrational. Instrumental theories of partisanship emphasize narrow self-interest, but participants’ altruism and spite clearly contradict this idea. Expressive theories emphasize emotions and social identities, perhaps even suggesting that attachment to parties is irrational and uncalculating, which implies that people’s quantitative tradeoffs will be disordered and haphazard since they do not benefit from the precision of calculations. But in fact, participants’ tradeoffs remained highly consistent with a distinct cost-benefit ratio, even when challenged to make many tradeoffs in a random order. Participants’ altruism and spite toward parties were proportional to the costs and benefits, revealing that their tradeoffs did result from precise calculations, even if they didn’t maximize their own money. 

Thus, people’s partisanship may be rational in the sense of proportional to costs and benefits, rather than in the narrow sense of maximizing money. This idea echoes growing research in psychology finding that many emotions, including anger, compassion, fear, and disgust are regulated by precise (unconscious) calculations, which proportion our emotions to costs and benefits, such as more anger for more harm, more compassion for more need, and more disgust for more risk of pathogens. Underneath the turbulent surface of partisan passions hide precise calculations that proportion our altruism and spite toward parties.

Fascinated by ratios of all kinds, Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook, “Proportion is not only found in numbers and measurements but also in sounds, weights, times, spaces, and in whatsoever power there may be.” Partisanship may be among the powers of society governed by proportions in the citizen’s mind. 

Preparation versus Relief: Understanding Public Sentiment Towards Natural Disaster Spending (Bechtel and Mannino)

blog post authored by Gianni Galasso, Michael Allison, Christine Hutchinson, and Holly Lawrence

This year, similar to last, the country will be hit by an above-average number of extreme weather events, including several major hurricanes. These natural disasters are known to cause immense economic and environmental damage. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urges communities to act on these forecasts and prepare, the US government has for decades under-invested in disaster preparedness. According to a new study by Michael Bechtel and Massimo Mannino (forthcoming in Political Behavior), from 1985 to 2010 federal authorities allocated about 3% of all disaster-related spending to improving disaster preparedness, while 97% went towards disaster relief. This stark imbalance is extremely costly; existing estimates suggest that one dollar invested in preparedness is worth about $15 in mitigated future damage. The economic fallout caused by Hurricane Katrina, for example, could have been brought down from $100 billion to about $7 billion if the region had invested more aggressively in disaster preparedness instead of disaster relief. With such high costs, what explains this tendency to under-prepare?

Fig. 1 | Satellite imagery of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall August 29, 2005 as a Category 5 Hurricane and took over 1,800 lives. Source:

One explanation for a lack of public support for disaster preparedness is that investment only seems worthwhile to those personally affected by extreme weather events. Plausibly, experiencing a natural disaster firsthand allows individuals to better understand the consequences of exposure to a disaster as well as to recognize a greater potential for future exposure. This experiential learning argument suggests that previously exposed individuals are more willing to invest in preparedness versus relief measures. Bechtel and Mannino’s study surveyed over 2,500 Americans, cross-referencing self-reported disaster exposure with geographic information. To their surprise, disaster exposure failed to predict support for disaster preparedness spending. In fact, individuals with medium and high levels of disaster exposure were just as unwilling to back preparedness investment as respondents with low affectedness.

What explains the absence of a systematic relationship between disaster exposure and policy preferences? Could mere exposure to natural disasters fail to provide respondents with information about the benefits of disaster preparedness spending, and perhaps even reinforce the belief that relief aid is the most effective approach because it is the most prevalent? Bechtel and Mannino explored this question using an experiment in which respondents were given information regarding the severity of disaster damages in the recent past and were asked about how they would split a $100 million budget between preparedness spending and disaster relief. They randomly assigned respondents into three groups. The control group received only the baseline information while the second group received a so called “compensation prime,” a short additional text about the government’s capacity to engage in relief efforts to compensate for damages and losses from a natural disaster. In contrast, the third group received information about the potential for preparedness investment to strongly reduce the damage caused by natural disasters.

Fig. 2 | Change in Disaster Preparedness Spending Relative to Control Condition in Percent. Results are broken down by treatment condition (no prime, compensation prime, damage reduction prime). The dots represent the change in preparedness spending as a percentage of the baseline level of preparedness spending in the control group. The vertical lines indicate 95% cluster-robust confidence intervals.

Figure 2 above displays the treatment effects observed in the compensation and damage reduction primes relative to the control condition. Compared to the baseline preparedness expenditure of about $50 million in the control group, represented by the green dot on the x-axis, respondents in the compensation condition were not willing to systematically invest more resources in disaster preparedness, represented by the red dot and confidence interval. This could mean that most people are already aware of the government’s ability to compensate for natural disasters with relief options, given that the presentation of this information had no effect on their spending preferences. When informed about the effectiveness of disaster preparedness, however, Americans changed their policy views and allocated 10% more funding to preparedness investment compared to the control group. This result, according to the research team, supports the idea that not knowing the economic benefits of preparedness over compensatory policy could help explain why personal disaster exposure and policy preferences are not systematically related.

The steep costs of under-preparedness, while the focus of Bechtel and Mannino’s study, are not unique to natural disasters. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to demonstrate the devastating effect of under-preparedness in the event of a public health crisis. While the pandemic came as a surprise for most people, infectious disease and other experts have been warning for years about an impending outbreak and our inability to handle it. In his popular 2015 TED Talk, former Microsoft CEO and founder Bill Gates noted that the US was seriously underinvesting and ultimately “not ready” for the next epidemic. While Gates’ concerns may not have garnered the public’s attention in 2015, they certainly have now. Over 600,000 deaths later, hindsight towards COVID –19 has initiated a strong push to prepare for pandemics in the future. Along with exposure to the pandemic came a flow of information about how better preparation could have saved countless lives and perhaps ended the COVID-19 outbreak in its infancy. As a result of learning about the effectiveness of preparedness measures, the public has displayed an increased desire for investing in pandemic preparedness in the future, supporting Bechtel and Mannino’s findings which show that when people are informed about the cost-saving measures of preparedness investment, policy preferences adjust accordingly. Educating the public about the efficacy of disaster preparedness may therefore be the most effective method in garnering its support and ultimately reducing disaster-related monetary and human losses in the long run.