Current Projects

Distributive Preferences and Social Norms

Non-selfish behaviour: Are social preferences or social norms revealed in distribution decisions? (2020) (with Shaun Hargreaves Heap and Konstantinos Matakos) [Poster] – under review

Abstract: People frequently behave non-selfishly in situations where they can reduce their own payoff to help others. It is typically assumed that such pro-social behaviour arises because people are motivated by a social preference. An alternative explanation is that they follow a social norm. We test with two survey experiments (N=2,408) which of these two explanations can better explain decisions people make in a simple distribution game under three different elicitation mechanisms. Unlike previous studies, we elicit preferences and perceived social norms directly for each subject. We find that i) norm-following better explains people’s distributive choices compared to social preferences and ii) lack of confidence in one’s social preference –itself explained by weaker social identification— predicts norm-following. Our findings imply that the Pareto criterion has weaker (than previously thought) foundations for welfare evaluations, but this effect may be attenuated in societies with stronger social identification. Perhaps unexpectedly, but unsurprisingly given i) above, we find that different mechanisms for eliciting social preferences have no effect on distribution decisions.

Experience of Social Mobility and Redistributive Preferences

Experience of Social Mobility and Support for Redistribution: Beating the Odds or Blaming the System (2020) – [working paper of previous version]

Abstract: How does the experience of social mobility affect people’s redistributive preferences? Using cross-country survey data including respondents from 27 countries questioned across three decades and a survey experiment ran in the United States in April 2021, I examine the effects of experienced social mobility on support for redistribution at the individual level. The results indicate a divide between people who experienced downward mobility as opposed to upward mobility – experiencing downward mobility increases support for redistribution while experiencing upward mobility does not affect redistributive preferences. This finding can be explained by how people’s own mobility experience affects their perceptions of opportunities within society. In line with the self-serving bias, those with negative mobility experiences ‘blame the system’ and extrapolate from their negative experience onto society at large, which increases their demand for redistribution. Conversely, those who experienced positive mobility believe they ‘beat the odds’ and, therefore, do not extrapolate from their experience onto perceptions of societal mobility, leading to no less support for redistribution. This relationship suggests significant implications at the aggregate: As overall absolute mobility increases, ceteris paribus, demand for redistribution rises. In the survey experiment, I find that this effect is especially driven by Republicans, rather than Democrats.

Taxes on the Rich

Why do (some) ordinary Americans support tax cuts for the rich? Evidence from a randomized survey experiment (2021) (with David Hope and Julian Limberg)

Abstract: In the US, the last 40 years have been a period of reducing tax rates on the
richest members of society. Public support is a crucial precondition for reforms that reduce tax progressivity. Why do ordinary Americans support tax cuts for the rich? We test the impact of four predominant theories – unenlightened self-interest, prospect of upward mobility, fairness considerations, and trickle-down beliefs using survey experiments. In particular, we test these theories by randomly assigning a sample of US Americans to different information treatments. We then estimate the effects of these treatments on core beliefs, articulated preferences, and elicited preferences towards tax cuts for the rich.

Maximizing effectiveness of policy-based responses to Covid-19: Citizens’ preferences over multi-dimensional trade-offs

Social preferences and the value of life during a pandemic (with Shaun Hargreaves Heap, Christel Koop, Konstantinos Matakos and Asli Unan) [5min Video]

Abstract: Policy interventions that require value of statistical life estimations (VSL) rely on the assumption that these estimates accurately reflect citizens’ preferences. We argue that for major policy interventions, like those aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 or environmental policies to reduce the adverse effects of climate change, this assumption is unlikely to hold because of the presence of social preferences. Traditional VSL elicitation methods use a ‘selfish frame’ to ask how much people would pay for an intervention that affects their own chances of death. This may be an accurate reflection of people’s preferences for narrow policy interventions but not for those with broader social implications. We propose two novel elicitation methods aimed at taking pro-social preferences into account in these cases. First, we change the frame to take the potential effects of the intervention for others into account. Second, we account for the potential fairness considerations associated with major policy interventions. We use our elicitation methods to estimate the VSL in the US and UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that using a traditional elicitation, VSL estimates are already very high in this case: $17m and £12m in the US and UK respectively. However, both of our pro-social elicitation methods increase the estimates substantially. The elicitation method taking fairness considerations into account reveals estimates with an average of $36m in the US and £22m in the UK. We show that VSL estimates derived from our fairness elicitation are also better at predicting compliance with government guidelines in both countries than the traditional VSL estimates. This suggests that taking social preferences into account can substantially improve the design of major policy interventions.

COVID-19 and People’s Health-Wealth Preferences: Information Effects and Policy Implications (2020) (with Shaun Hargreaves Heap, Christel Koop, Konstantinos Matakos and Asli Unan) [Politics JaM Podcast] [Vox EU]

Abstract: Policy makers responding to COVID-19 need to know people’s relative valuation of health over wealth. Loosening and tightening lockdowns moves a society along a (perceived) health-wealth trade-off and the associated changes have to accord with the public’s relative valuation of health and wealth for maximum compliance. In our survey experiment (N=4,618), we randomize information provision on economic and health costs to assess public preferences over this trade-off in the UK and the US. People strongly prioritize health over wealth, but the treatment effects suggest these priorities will change as the experience of COVID-19 deaths and income losses evolves. Information also has heterogeneous/polarizing effects. These results encourage policy caution. Individual differences in health-wealth valuation highlight this study’s importance because they map onto compliance with current lockdown measures.

We cannot disagree forever! Reality polarization and citizens’ post-pandemic fiscal adjustment preferences (2021) (with Shaun Hargreaves Heap, Christel Koop, Konstantinos Matakos and Asli Unan) [Washington Post] – under review

Abstract: Recent studies have found considerable partisan polarization of both reality and policy preferences in the US. Furthermore, this polarization is so entrenched that it is immune to the provision of factual information. Has the COVID-19 pandemic, which affects citizens unequally, reproduced or disrupted these polarization patterns? To answer this question, we conducted a US-wide conjoint survey experiment with embedded information treatments. We focus on citizens’ fiscal adjustment preferences given the (anticipated) lasting fiscal COVID-19 legacy. We find that both reality perceptions regarding the pandemic and policy preferences over post-COVID-19 fiscal adjustment are polarized along familiar partisan lines, but map less well onto traditional socio- economic cleavages. However, we find that the partisan policy polarization largely disappears when citizens are exposed to information on predicted COVID-19 deaths and income losses. This de-polarizing effect is due to synchronous movement by both Democrats and Republicans, which bridges the policy gap between them. Importantly, such information has the additional re-set effect of shifting fiscal adjustment preferences towards a greater reliance on wealth and corporate taxes. We find further evidence that a US-wide consensus over a post-pandemic fiscal policy ’New Deal’ is feasible and potentially lasting.

Good News for Whom? The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine announcement reduced political trust (2021) (with Shaun Hargreaves Heap, Christel Koop, Konstantinos Matakos and Asli Unan) – under review

Abstract: The announcement of Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine success on 9 November 2020 led to a global stock market surge. But how did the general public respond to such good news? We report results of a nation-wide natural experiment in the US and the UK on how the vaccine news influenced citizens’ government evaluations, anxiety, beliefs and elicited behaviors. While most outcomes were unaffected by the news, trust in government and elected politicians (and their competency) saw a significant decline in both countries. As the news did not concern the government, and the government did not have time to act on the news, our results suggest a dispositional response to positive news more likely to be explained by a form of the psychological mechanism of motivated reasoning. They also offer a novel insight regarding the association between trust in government and compliance with its policies: anxiety might explain both.