Public policy often involves the creation of guidance and regulations that are specifically designed to guide you and keep you safe. The rather obvious and most immediate example has been the response to COVID-19. Travel restrictions have been imposed, businesses have been directed to close, the wearing of facemarks is mandated, and social distancing rules are enacted.
What is fascinating about all of this is how people respond. A new study from the University of Notre Dame has revealed that government-imposed restrictions can backfire, depending on political ideology.
Let’s take a look.
Published June 1, 2020 in the Journal of Marketing Research, the paper describes how researchers investigated the role of political ideology in consumer reactions to consumption regulations.
The research found conservatives — but not liberals — increased usage of mobile phones in vehicles after a law was enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration prohibiting the activity. It also showed that after consumers were exposed to government regulations, whether new laws or warning labels designed by the Food and Drug Administration, conservatives were more likely to purchase unhealthy foods and view smoking e-cigarettes more favorably.
Vamsi Kanuri, assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business explained …
“We did not find these same effects when a non-government source is used or when the message from the government is framed as a notification rather than a warning, We attribute our findings to a heightened feeling of threat to freedom among conservatives when they are faced with government-imposed regulations.”
How did they find this out, what did they do?
The team conducted four studies to show that reactance to restrictions on freedom, rather than political associations with specific regulations, drives the effect. Through a pilot study, they identified which government regulations are perceived to be supported by liberals versus conservatives.
The team then generalized their findings in Studies 1 and 2 to those supported by conservatives: mobile phone usage; in Study 3 to those supported by liberals: eating unhealthy food; and in Study 4 to those not perceived to be supported by any political ideology: electronic cigarette smoking.
“Specifically in the first study, we demonstrate via natural experiment that conservatives are more likely to reject a law restricting mobile phone use while driving,” Kanuri said. “In Study 2, we replicate the results from the natural experiment with a controlled experiment, demonstrating the mediating role of perceived threat to freedom based on beliefs about future implications and rule out an alternative explanation based on party leadership. In Study 3, we investigate the moderating role of the source to show that intent to purchase an unhealthy food increases among more conservative individuals when they view a nutritional label with a government source versus a company source.”
“This study also demonstrates the mediating role of the sense of threat to freedom, a hallmark of reactance,” Kanuri explained. “In the final study, we determine that the FDA can get conservative consumers to view e-cigarette usage more negatively and nudge them to quit by simply using a notification rather than a warning message.”
Why did they do this study?
The objective is not to score a political point, but rather to understand what actually happens.
By demonstrating that using a less forceful message may increase conservative consumers’ compliance with government regulations, the study shows how agencies can better communicate their messages to increase the effectiveness of regulations that promote consumer well-being.
It really does matter
In 2017 alone, distracted driving (e.g., texting) accounted for 9% of all fatal traffic accidents in the United States. That led to 3,166 deaths. Due to these alarming figures, many U.S. states have begun enacting laws that fine drivers who text and drive. Guidance is also given to drivers to not text and drive. Understanding what is the best way to craft such guidance and so achieve the highest possible compliance is rather important.
It is of course not just about driving. 39% of the U.S. adult population are considered obese. 15% of the adult U.S. population are smokers, and one in four teens vaped at least one day in the past month in 2019. Local state and federal officials respond by striving to introduce initiatives that are designed to encourage people to make better choices.
The challenge is that due to their specific political leanings, some perceive this well-intentioned guidance as a direct threat to their freedoms and so they react negatively. What happens is that a restricted freedom becomes more attractive and the source of the restriction is seen less favourably.
The key point
They demonstrate that conservatives (vs. liberals) are more likely to act against a newly enacted law when the law restricts a common behaviour (i.e., mobile phone usage while driving), and conservatives (but not liberals) are more likely to act counter to a warning label when it is associated with a governmental source (vs. when it is not).
What is going on inside their heads?
A key facet of this psychological reactance is a perceived or actual threat to freedom. When presented with a threat to freedom, an individual may acquire an aversive motivational state to reestablish freedom, termed “reactance”. It has been suggested by researchers in the past that one way individuals try to restore threatened freedom is by performing a behaviour similar to the threatened behaviour.
There is also what is known as The implication principle.
The implication principle suggests that when individuals perceive a threat to their freedom, they also identify (consciously or non-consciously) other implied threats. For example, if a mother tells her teenage daughter she cannot go to a party, the daughter may think that her mother is not going to let her go to other parties next month, or worse, she may perceive implied threats to other freedoms such as cell phone use or extracurricular activities. These implied threats accentuate the seriousness of the initial threat and induce rebellious behaviour.
Part of their hypothesis was that conservatives may be drawing implications from the government interventions that similar restrictions may follow in the future.
What needs to Happen to the regulations?
The findings of this research suggest that public policy makers who strive to improve the effectiveness of certain consumption regulations such as warning labels on regulated products need to consider the political ideology of their audience when designing warning labels.
Easy changes in warning labels, such as explicitly stating the source of the message or framing the message as a warning, can significantly reduce the effect of such labels among certain populations and possibly encourage individuals to engage in the warned-against behaviour.
Simple things can make a huge difference.
The research demonstrates that putting a CDC or an FDA logo on a warning label can decrease the warning label’s effectiveness among specific populations.
Given the results, it could be argued that any cue that ties a warning label or regulation to the government may lead conservatively orientated consumers to act counter to the purpose of the warning/ regulation. They recommend that public policy makers take this effect into account in designing their programs.