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Brexit and recent elections in several countries are examples where many voters apparently opposed alternatives that would have made them better off and instead chose options more in line with their cultural worldviews, says researchers behind new study.

Brexit and recent elections in several countries are examples where many voters apparently opposed alternatives that would have made them better off and instead chose options more in line with their cultural worldviews, says researchers behind new study.

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Published 13.06.2017

Why do voters oppose alternatives that would have made them better off? Researchers have turned to methods from experimental economics to study the factors that underlie the puzzling voting behavior.

People often oppose social and environmental policies, even when these policies promise to make them better off. That is particularly true when the policies confront perceptions of how the world works.

A new article in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management finds that the implementation of policies to solve social and environmental problems is thwarted by individuals’ inclinations to rely on cultural worldviews over evidence of the effectiveness of such policies.

The motivation of the study is that many promising policy solutions are not implemented because of public opposition. Examples of failed policy initiatives that would have improved people’s lives include environmental taxes, congestion charges, or vaccination programs.

But why do people oppose policies that experts believe would make them better off? Do they lack information or trust in expert opinion?

An alternative explanation has been suggested, based on cultural cognition theory: When judging a policy, many people rely on their worldviews more than on the merits of the policy. Brexit and recent elections in several countries are examples where many voters apparently opposed alternatives that would have made them better off and instead chose options more in line with their cultural worldviews. Many factors, however, impact such voting behavior and so it is difficult to draw clear conclusions from these examples.

A team of researchers from CICERO Center for International Climate Research, Appalachian State University and Colorado State University has instead turned to methods from experimental economics to study the factors that underlie the puzzling voting behavior. In the latest study of this research agenda, they observe in a controlled experimental market that people oppose efficient policies.

"...opposition is greater to policy instruments that are generally more effective"

steffen kallbekken, cicero

"We created an experimental market where policies would unambiguously improve the participants’ material outcomes, yet we observe opposition to these policies, and the opposition is greater to policy instruments that are generally more effective", says Steffen Kallbekken, Research Director at CICERO and one of the authors of Accepting Market Failure: Worldviews and the Opposition to Corrective Environmental Policies.

The authors sought to explore how individual cultural worldviews contribute to the rejection of policies that correct market failures. In a laboratory market study, the researchers found that people with different worldviews exhibit substantially different levels of aversion towards policies. The differences in opposition are systematic and follow patterns consistent with the principles associated with the different worldviews.

"We have promising solutions to problems, but implementation has been a problem. That cultural worldviews shape this opposition is a challenge because worldviews are formed over a lifetime of experiences, says Professor Todd Cherry from Appalachian State University, a senior research fellow at CICERO and the lead author of the study.

"That worldviews matter is not surprising, but we find they can matter a great deal. Enough to prevent enacting solutions", says co-author Stephan Kroll from Colorado State University, where the study was conducted.

For example, people with more individualist worldviews were found to be more likely to vote against quantity instruments that solve market inefficiencies than people with more communitarian worldviews. Similarly, people with more egalitarian worldview were more likely to support redistributive tax and subsidy solutions.

The findings suggest the presence of an inherent barrier that impedes elected policymakers to effectively address and solve market failures. Even when policies are designed to improve individual well-being, public support can be a major challenge.

"Our findings show that identifying good policies is not enough because people respond in significant ways to the design and communication of the policies. The way forward is to identify ways to design and communicate policies that do not threaten people’s worldviews" says Steffen Kallbekken.

The full paper is available for free until July 22nd using this link.