The psychological underpinnings of policy feedback effects

There has been a lot of scholarly attention devoted to explaining why policies have feedback effects on public opinion. In my review of the policy feedback literature, I made the following observation on the attention to potential explanations in the literature (p. 374):

Soss and Schram (2007), for example, elaborate that policies change basic features of the political landscape by affecting the political agenda and shaping interests as well as identities in the public; influence beliefs about what is possible; desirable, and normal; define incentives; and so on. Ingram, Schneider, and deLeon (2007) describe that the design of a policy shapes the allocation of benefits and burdens, problem definitions, types of rules, tools, rationales, causal logic, and “messages” (see also Pierce et al., 2014). Mettler and Soss (2004) describe that policy feedback effects “include defining membership; forging political cohesion and group divisions; building or undermining civic capacities; framing policy agendas, problems, and evaluations; and structuring, stimulating, and stalling political participation” (p. 55). In other words, to fully capture and understand policy feedback effects, it is not possible to delimit an adequate review of the policy feedback literature to a single mechanism.

I end up concluding that “future research should pay close attention to testing the mechanisms of different micro- and macro-level characteristics in shaping policy feedback effects”. This relates to the point Campbell (2012) made in her review, i.e., that there has been too much focus on the policy feedback effects and not on policy feedback mechanisms. In my view, not much has changed since 2012.

The predominant focus in several policy feedback studies has been on the economic incentives provided by policies to support these policies. The argument made by Paul Pierson in the early literature on policy feedback effects is that beneficiaries of welfare programs never voluntarily would give up their social rights, but protect them unless something prevents the political mobilization of the group of recipients. Hence, the policies implemented by governments act as institutions that impose certain resources upon citizens with implications for their attitudes toward such policies. To change such policies would involve huge opportunity costs. Similarly, research by Theda Skocpol has showed how Civil War pensions led veterans to organize and demand improved benefits. Again, the underlying assumption in this perspective is that beneficiaries of policies will participate in politics due their role as beneficiaries.

However, Pierson (1993) also outlines how policies can have interpretive effects by providing cognitive templates for interpretation. In other words, policies provide information and cues that matter beyond the economic/resource effects. Despite this focus, there has been very limited focus on potential psychological explanations. Accordingly, what I should have expanded upon in my review is that I find it interesting that we do not know what potential psychological mechanisms are at play.

It is not because we do not have research from other fields that can guide our thinking. On the contrary, there are basic psychological explanations for why people favour existing policies. Eidelman and Crandall (2012) outline different explanations for this, such as loss aversion, regret avoidance, and repeated exposure. In doing this, they cover the status quo bias, system justification, the existence bias, the naturalistic fallacy, endowment effect, and the longer-is-better phenomenon (see also Eidelman and Crandall 2014).

What I would like to see is that political scientists begin to read more of this research to better understand how policies matter for public opinion. This is not to say, that you can’t find these arguments in the literature. Gusmano et al. (2002), for example, talks about how exposure to a policy (i.e., the more a person interacts with a policy), in line with a “mere exposure” explanation, the greater the habituation and acceptance of that policy.

Interestingly, what these theories can help us understand is not only explain policy feedback effects, and in particular why people favour existing policies, but also help us understand the limitations of policy feedback effects. I was reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. It is a great book and it provides a strong case for why people are not always and solely shaped by the environment. Luckily, this is not a controversial statement to make within political science in 2021. Recent studies on motivated reasoning, political identities, individual differences, etc. can all help us understand why people do not always respond to policies, or why people do not respond to policies in a homogeneous manner.

Policy feedback effects on public opinion: a list of quantitative studies

In my article in the Policy Studies Journal (published in 2019), I provided a review of published quantitative studies that explicitly examine policy feedback effects on public opinion.

Since then, I have noticed several other studies being published and below I provide a list of the studies I have in my archive. As you can read in my article, I introduced several criteria for the selection of studies of interest (for example, I only look at studies using individual-level data).

As I have not been meticulously following the literature over the recent years, I am sure the list is not exhaustive. I plan to update the list when I find additional studies and do feel free to reach out if you are aware of studies that I have missed.

Study Context Policy Outcome
Abou-Chadi and Finnigan (2019) 29 countries Same-sex rights Attitudes toward homosexuality
Anderson (2009) 16/17 countries Labour market policies Social ties
Andersson et al. (2018) Sweden Asylum applications Attitudes towards refugees
Banducci et al. (2016) 28 countries Family policy Government policy attitudes
Barabas (2009) U.S. Private investment account program Support for privatization policies
Barnes and Hope (2017) U.S. Means-tested public assistance Political socialization
Beaudonnet (2015) 27 countries Welfare efficacy Support for the European Union
Bendz (2015) Sweden Privatization reform Attitudes toward health care privatization
Bendz (2017) Sweden Privatization option Attitudes toward health care privatization
Branham (2018) U.S. Policy spending Policy support
Breznau (2017) 19 countries Social spending and decommodification Government responsibility
Bruch et al. (2010) U.S. Government assistance Political engagement
Bruch and Soss (2018) U.S. School experiences Political engagement and government trust
Burlacu et al. (2018) Germany and Sweden Waiting time rights Health system satisfaction
Busemeyer (2013) 20 countries Private share in education funding Attitudes toward redistribution
Busemeyer and Goerres (2014) 20 countries Education Political participation
Busemeyer and Goerres (2020) Germany Public childcare fees Fair fee level
Busemeyer and Iversen (2014) 20 countries Public share of education spending Attitudes toward government spending on education
Busemeyer and Iversen (2020) 20 OECD countries Private welfare provision Support for the welfare state
Busemeyer and Neimanns (2017) 21 countries Childcare and unemployment benefits Government responsibility
Chattopadhyay (2017) U.S. Dependent coverage provision Policy support and political engagement
Córdova and Kras (2020) Brazil Women’s police stations Trust in the police
Davenport (2015) U.S. Policy-induced risk Political participation
Dellmuth and Chalmers (2018) 13 EU member states EU spending Support for the EU
Ellingsæter et al. (2017) Norway Childcare service reforms Childcare service attitudes
Fernandez and Jaime-Castillo (2013) 27 European countries Pension policy attitudes (e.g. generosity) Attitudes toward increasing contributions to the pension system
Fervers (2019) Germany Labour market reform Vote intention
Flavin and Griffin (2009) U.S. Multiple Policy preferences
Flavin and Hartney (2015) U.S. Bargaining laws Political participation
Fleming (2014) U.S. School voucher program Multiple
Garritzmann (2015) 17 countries Education expenditures Attitudes towards student support
Gingrich (2014) 16 countries Tax design and welfare visibility Right-wing party vote
Gingrich (2019) Britain Education policy Economic equality attitudes
Gingrich and Ansell (2012) 18 countries Employment protection legislation and single payer system Government spending attitudes
Guo and Ting (2015) China Social insurance coverage Political participation
Gusmano et al. (2002) U.S. Health care policies Attitudes toward employer involvement in health care
Haselswerdt (2017) U.S. Medicaid beneficiary Political participation
Haselswerdt and Bartels (2015) U.S. Tax expenditure policy tool Approval of social programs
Hedegaard (2014) Denmark Proximity to welfare recipient Social policy preferences
Hedegaard and Larsen (2014) Denmark Proximity to welfare recipient Social policy preferences
Hern (2017a) Zambia Policy access Political participation
Hern (2017b) Zambia Government project access Political participation
Hetling et al. (2008) U.S. Welfare reform Attitudes toward welfare recipients
Im and Meng (2016) China Multiple welfare policies Attitudes toward government responsibility
Jacobs and Mettler (2018) U.S. Access to health care Affordable Care Act attitudes
Jordan (2010) 11 countries Hierarchical health care system Attitudes toward government responsibility
Jordan (2013) 17 countries Welfare policy generosity Government responsibility for welfare
Kerner (2020) 8 countries Pension system Attitudes towards neoliberalism
Kotsadam and Jakobsson (2011) Sweden and Norway Prostitution law Attitudes toward prostitution
Kreitzer et al. (2014) Iowa (U.S.) Same-sex marriage legalizing Support for same-sex marriage
Kumlin (2011) 11 countries Social policy generosity Satisfaction with democracy
Kumlin (2014) Sweden Welfare policy information Performance evaluation
Kumlin and Rothstein (2005) Sweden Needs-tested policies Interpersonal trust
Kweon (2018) 18 European countries Labor market policies Vote choice
Larsen (2018) Denmark Retrenchment reform Government support
Larsen (2020) 30 countries Healthcare policies Government attitudes
Lavery (2014) U.S. Policy information design Political knowledge and engagement
Lavery (2017) U.S. Policy information Political engagement
Lerman and McCabe (2017) U.S. Public insurance Support for health care policies
Li and Wu (2018) China Pension scheme Political trust
Lindh (2015) 17 countries Private funding and public employment Support for market distribution of services
Lü (2014) China Policy benefit Attitudes toward government responsibility and trust in government
Lynch and Myrskylä (2009) 11 European countries Public pensions Attitudes toward pension reforms
MacLean (2011) Africa Public schools and clinics Political participation
Maltby (2017) U.S. Jail ratio Political attitudes and participation
Mettler (2002) U.S. Educational benefits Political participation
Mettler and Stonecash (2008) U.S. Means-tested programs Political participation
Mettler and Welch (2004) U.S. Educational benefits Political participation
Munoz et al. (2014
Spain Austerity package Political engagement
Nagayoshi and Hjerm (2015) 26 countries Labour market policies Anti-immigration attitudes
Ofosu et al. (2019) U.S. Same-sex rights Antigay bias
Pacheco (2013) U.S. Smoking legislation Attitudes toward smoking and smokers
Raven et al. (2011) Netherlands Welfare state spending Preferences for social security spending
Rhodes (2014) U.S. Education policies Political engagement
Rosenthal (2019) U.S. Universal and means-tested policies Political participation
Rönnerstrand and Oskarson (2020) Sweden Waiting-time guarantee Hospital service satisfaction
Sances and Clinton (2021) U.S. Expansion of Medicaid Support towards the Affordable Care Act
Schneider and Jacoby (2003) U.S. Public assistance Multiple
Shore (2014) 26 countries Social benefits Political engagement
Simonovits et al. (2019) U.S. Agricultural payments Electoral participation
Soss (1999) U.S. Social policies (AFDC and SSDI) Political engagement
Soss and Schram (2007) U.S. Welfare reform (TANF) Multiple
Stensöta and Bendz (2020) Sweden Early retirement generosity Policy trust
Sumino (2016) 19 countries Share of taxes in household income Support for taxation
Svallfors (2010) Germany Policy regime Attitudes towards government responsibilities
Swartz et al. (2009) U.S. Social policy assistance Political engagement
Theiss and Kurowska (2019) 9 European countries Social welfare benefits Protest behaviour
Vannoni (2019) Four countries Tobacco advertisement bans Tobacco control attitudes
van Oorschot and Meuleman (2014) 23 countries Unemployment policies Perception of deservingness of the unemployed
Watson (2015) U.K. Conditional benefits recipient Political engagement
Weaver and Lerman (2010) U.S. Contact with the authorities Political engagement and political trust
Yang and Shen (2021) China Social welfare benefits Political trust
Zhu and Lipsmeyer (2015) 19 countries Privatization of healthcare responsibility Support for increasing government healthcare spending
Ziller and Helbling (2017) 21 countries Antidiscrimination laws Public administration evaluation, political trust and democratic satisfaction

New article in Journal of European Social Policy: Personal politics

I have a new paper titled ‘Personal politics? Health care policies, personal experiences and government attitudes’ in the new issue of Journal of European Social Policy. Here is the abstract:

Do personal experiences matter for public attitudes towards the role of the government? In the domain of healthcare, I argue that policies change the salience of personal experiences for government attitudes. Specifically, I expect that personal experiences matter less for government attitudes when healthcare is publicly financed, that is, when there is less emphasis on financing healthcare via market-based choices. Empirically, I link subjective and objective personal experiences from the International Social Survey Programme to macro-level policy indicators. The analysis provides strong support for the expectation and contributes to a growing body of literature interested in the underpinnings of government attitudes in a comparative perspective.

The manuscript aims to explore why there is substantial variation in the relationship between people’s personal experiences and their government attitudes, as illustrated below.

The key finding is that when healthcare is publicly financed, people will rely less on their own personal experiences. You can find the article here. As always, you can find the replication material at the Harvard Dataverse and GitHub.

This is the fourth published article from my PhD. I also believe it is going to be the last.