Power of Haas Ideas

Winning Over Constituents

Framing messages to influence acceptance

When it comes to gaining public support, policymakers should focus on the positive. So says a study, forthcoming in Management Science, co-authored by Haas Asst. Prof. Ellen Evers.

Take, for example, a 2012 “fat tax” proposal in the Netherlands. The idea failed, Evers says, because its campaign message—introduce a tax on unhealthy, fattening foods and use the proceeds to make healthy food cheaper—was perceived as punishing citizens for eating bad foods.

“If they had framed the campaign positively, such as, ‘We should make healthy foods cheaper and fund this by increasing the cost of bad foods,’ it is likely many more people would have seen this as an acceptable intervention,” says Evers. “Different descriptions of the same policy can lead to dramatically different rates of acceptance.”

The paper is co-authored by Yoel Inbar of the University of Toronto and Irene Blanken and Linda Oosterwijk of Tilburg University, Netherlands.

Voluntary versus obligatory behavior is also key to a policy’s success. Study participants favored outcomes that reward positive and voluntary behavior. People also favored punishing behavior when it runs afoul of an obligation or rule but opposed preferential treatment for those who did not break the rules.

Evers calls these differences in judgment a “matching effect.” Focusing on the disadvantage—being moved down on the organ donor list if you are not yourself an organ donor—is considered punishment and not accepted. However, focusing on an advantage—moving up on the organ list if you are a donor—is favored because it’s seen as rewarding a desired voluntary behavior. By understanding this matching effect when framing a message, policymakers are more likely to increase acceptance of a policy. —PT

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Asst. Prof. Ellen Evers Asst. Prof. Ellen Evers