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Environmentally-friendly policies: You say offset, I say tax? Labels and political affiliation may affect preferences

Date:
January 13, 2010
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
New findings suggest a strong link between our political affiliation and how we react to certain labels. When choosing among two items, Democratic, Republican, and Independent volunteers tended to select a more expensive, albeit environmentally-friendly, product if the surcharge was labeled as a "carbon offset." When the surcharge was labeled as a "carbon tax," Democratic volunteers still opted for the costlier item, but Republican and Independent participants were more likely to choose the cheaper item.

Would you pay more for certain products to save the planet? That's the question behind the burgeoning carbon-offset industry -- proponents pay more money for carbon-producing activities (such as flying), with the idea that the carbon emissions will be balanced out by funding for alternative energy sources.

At the same time, economists and climate scientists agree that a carbon tax would be the most effective means through which the U.S. could lower carbon emissions and pay for alternative energy production. However, politicians are reluctant to propose a carbon tax because taxes tend to be unpopular with constituents, especially with Republican voters. But does word choice, such as offset versus tax, really make a difference? And in addition, does our political affiliation influence how we respond to certain labels?

Columbia University psychological scientists David J. Hardisty, Eric J. Johnson, and Elke U. Weber wanted to see how the way in which a concept is framed (that is, how it is labeled) affects our attitude towards it. In this experiment, volunteers (who self-identified as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents) read about a program that would increase the cost of certain carbon-producing activities but would use the proceeds to fund alternative energies or carbon capture and sequestration. For half the volunteers this surcharge was labeled as a "carbon offset," while for the other half it was labeled as a "carbon tax," yet the details of the program were the same in each case. Participants then had to choose between two identical items (e.g., airline tickets), where one cost more, because it included the surcharge. Volunteers were asked to write down their thoughts about the decision, make a choice, and also indicate whether they would support legislation making the surcharge mandatory for all products of that type.

The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest a strong link between our political affiliation and how we react to certain frames. In the "offset" condition, Democratic, Republican, and Independent volunteers tended to select the more expensive, albeit environmentally-friendly, product. They were also equally likely (across party) to support making the cost increase mandatory. However, in the "tax" condition, while Democratic volunteers still opted for the costlier item, Republican and Independent participants were more likely to choose the cheaper item, and did not support legislation.

In addition, analysis of the volunteers' thought processes indicates that labels may have resulted in differences in the order in which they thought about the options, in turn affecting their choices. For example, Republicans volunteers had an immediate, negative reaction to the "tax" option, which made them think about advantages of the cheaper item, which they ultimately chose. However, in the "offset" condition, Republicans listed supportive thoughts towards the surcharge, increasing the likelihood of the more expensive item being selected.

The authors suggest that "policymakers (and those who advise them) would be wise to note the differential impact that policy labels may have on different groups." They conclude, "What might seem like a trivial semantic difference to one person can have a large impact on someone else."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. David J. Hardisty, Eric J. Johnson, and Elke U. A Dirty Word or a Dirty World? Attribute Framing, Political Affiliation, and Query Theory. Psychological Science, January 11, 2010

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "Environmentally-friendly policies: You say offset, I say tax? Labels and political affiliation may affect preferences." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 January 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100112135036.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2010, January 13). Environmentally-friendly policies: You say offset, I say tax? Labels and political affiliation may affect preferences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100112135036.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "Environmentally-friendly policies: You say offset, I say tax? Labels and political affiliation may affect preferences." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100112135036.htm (accessed July 30, 2014).

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