How grammatical tweaks can radically alter support for public policies
Researchers find that policies that will impact "you" are looked at with skepticism. Those that involve "people" are viewed more favorably.
Besides choosing between candidates, many voters today will be deciding on one or more ballot initiatives. A good number of these are attempts to nudge people into taking desirable actions — say, changing organ-donation protocols from "opt in" to "opt out."
As with so much else in politics, the success of these efforts depends in part on how they are framed. That means a surprisingly simple factor can make a big difference: Grammar.
In a recently published paper, Columbia University psychologists James Cornwell and David Krantz report support for public-policy initiatives varies significantly depending upon their precise wording. Policies that will impact "you" are looked at with skepticism; those that involve "people" in general (a group that, by definition, includes you) are viewed more favorably.
"When phrasing of the rationale for public policy uses the second-person plural, and thus induces participants to consider themselves one of the targets of these policies, support for them drops," the researchers write in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.
This difference, they write, reflects the "belief that others are more easily manipulated by these policy schemes than they themselves are," which means the initiatives "are therefore more likely to 'work' when aimed at others than when aimed at them."
Cornwall and Krantz describe two studies, the first of which featured 85 U.S. residents recruited online. They were asked to judge four public policy initiatives: a tax on fuel to reduce carbon emissions; an increase in criminal penalties to discourage petty crime; tax incentives to encourage community service; and tax credits to encourage savings and investment.
Participants were randomly assigned to read a version of the proposals that used second-person wording, or a nearly identical version that used third-person wording.
For instance, when reading about the proposed gasoline tax, half were informed that "The theory is that when you need to pay more for gasoline, you will drive less to save money." The others learned that "The theory is that when people need to pay more for gasoline, they will drive less to save money."
After reading the proposals, participants indicated on a one-to-seven scale their levels of support for such a policy, and the degree to which they thought it would be effective.
Across the board, support for the policies, and confidence in their effectiveness, was significantly higher when they were framed as impacting "people" as opposed to "you."
"Shifting attention to the self, rather than people in general, causes people to be less optimistic about the policies' manipulative power," the researchers write.
A second study, which used a larger pool of participants (296) and a bigger set of proposals, confirmed these results.
It all suggests we believe others can be nudged into certain behaviors, but personally, we are far too smart and savvy to fall for such tricks. While that's almost surely an ego-driven illusion, it influences our attitudes — and, presumably, even our votes on policy initiatives.
But then, you knew that, even if "people" don't.
Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.
More from Pacific Standard...