Monday, December 16, 2013

Could you ever get welfare-hating Americans to start voting like Danish social democrats? A new study suggests it may be easier than you think

The other day, I wrote a post that argued that Americans' attitudes about poverty have been shaped by deep-rooted social attitudes about the "deserving" (hard-working but unlucky) vs. the "undeserving" (lazy and unmotivated) poor. But are national opinions about welfare really set in stone? Recently I stumbled across a surprising new study (H/T Henry Farrell at The Monkey Cage) suggesting that national attitudes about welfare may be far more malleable than anyone had realized. All that's needed to change people's minds, apparently, are a few sentences that prompt them to consider a different baseline assumption.

The study in question was conducted by Danish political scientists and will be published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Journal of Politics, this month. The authors examined the contrasting social welfare attitudes of Americans and Danes. Citizens of these countries have sharply divergent default assumptions about welfare recipients -- Americans are far more likely to see them as undeserving ("lazy"), while Danes tend toward the opposite view. However, the researchers found that if citizens are given information that challenges their default assumption, their attitudes change.

The authors note that previous research suggests that respondents' beliefs about the "deservingness" of welfare applicants are a strong determinant of their overall attitudes about social welfare policy. This finding applies across cultures, to social democracies with strong social welfare systems like Denmark as well as nations with far more limited public assistance, such as the United States:
[S]tudies in political science have found that social welfare is rejected for recipients perceived as lazy but supported for recipients perceived as unlucky across highly different countries (see, e.g., Oorschot 2000; Petersen 2012; Petersen et al. 2012). In one large analysis, for example, Petersen et al. (2012) showed the existence of a positive correlation between laziness perceptions and welfare opposition in 49 out of 49 studied countries from around the world (including the United States, Peru, Germany, Russia, South Korea, Australia, and Nigeria), and the correlation was significant at conventional levels in all but a single country. According to research on the deservingness heuristic, people across cultures are against providing welfare to those who are unwilling to invest effort to improve their circumstances (“the lazy”) but are supportive of welfare benefits to those making an effort and trying but failing due to forces beyond their control (“the unlucky”).
The authors decided to compare welfare attitudes in the United States and Denmark because of the sharp contrasts between the two countries in their social welfare states and the variables that gave rise to them:
We focus on the United States and Denmark as our sites of study, as these two countries differ substantially on all of the factors that previous research has deemed important in explaining cross-national differences in welfare state support: the structure of welfare state institutions, degree of individualism, and levels of ethnic homogeneity.
They surveyed over 1,000 subjects in each country. Not surprisingly, they found that while Americans are more likely to have negative stereotypes of welfare recipients ("lazy"), the Danish stereotype is that those on welfare are unlucky victims of circumstance.

But the researchers also discovered that when respondents of both countries were provided with information about a hypothetical welfare recipient that challenged their respective stereotypes, their views on welfare policy changed -- dramatically:
Thus, when the man on social welfare is described as lazy, both the American and Danish respondents alike are predominantly opposed to granting social welfare, and there is no significant effect of country (b = .03, p = .182). Likewise, when the man on social welfare is described as unlucky, both the American and the Danish respondents are largely in favor of granting social welfare, and again there is no significant effect of country (b = ‒.01, p = .645).
Here is what respondents were told about the "deserving" applicant:
He has always had a regular job, but has now been the victim of a work-related injury. He is very motivated to get back to work again.
 And here's the information they were given about the "undeserving" applicant:
He has never had a regular job, but he is fit and healthy. He is not motivated to get a job.
So what are we to make of these results? According to the authors, previous research emphasized that national differences in social welfare attitudes are "a product of deep-seated structural and cultural differences and long-standing institutional path dependencies." Yet this experiment suggests that the mere addition of a stereotype-busting prompt can cause default attitudes to turn upside down. Indeed, in this experiment, after the respondents were provided with a few sentences that contradicted their default assumption, "support among Americans and Danes becomes substantially and statistically indistinguishable—despite a lifetime of exposure to different welfare state cultures."

Of course this was a canned social science experiment, and to what extent national social welfare attitudes can be transformed in the real world remains to be seen. But the study strongly suggests that, perhaps, national beliefs about welfare policy are not as set in stone as previous research indicated. If American progressives organized an ambitious public information campaign designed to change national attitudes about welfare policy, would they succeed? It's hard to say how much such an effort might move public opinion. But this study tantalizingly suggests that the potential to transform social welfare attitudes may be far greater than we'd imagined.


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