Just two sentences make Americans as pro-welfare as Danes

December 10, 2013
(Washington Post/Tom Toles)
(Tom Toles/The Washington Post)

That’s the conclusion of a forthcoming article in the Journal of Politics by Lene Aarøe and Michael Bang Petersen. Aarøe and Petersen argue that people’s attitudes to welfare depend on their perceptions of welfare recipients. If they believe that welfare recipients are lazy, they are unlikely to support welfare. If they believe that welfare recipients are making an effort to find work, they are likely to take a different attitude. Previous research suggests that Scandinavians tend to be quite positive about welfare, while Americans are markedly skeptical. This may be because citizens of the two countries have different stereotypes about whether welfare seekers are lazy or pro-active.

Aarøe and Petersen conducted survey experiments in the United States and Denmark to investigate whether stereotypes shaped Danish and European attitudes. They randomly exposed some participants in both countries to canned information suggesting that a welfare recipient was lazy, others to information suggesting that a welfare recipient was motivated to find work, and others to no substantial information about the recipient. They then asked people to evaluate social welfare benefits.

On average, Americans were considerably more likely to associate welfare with laziness than Danes. But what’s interesting is that these stereotypes were largely overwhelmed by the canned information when it was available. When the man on welfare was described in the following terms:

He has always had a regular job, but has now been the victim of a work-related injury. He is very motivated to get back to work again

the differences between Americans and Danes disappeared. Both were largely willing to support social welfare measures. As summarized by the authors:

(1)… individuals in two highly different welfare states — the United States and Denmark — have different default stereotypes about whether welfare recipients are lazy or unlucky; (2) … these differences in stereotypes create differences in support for welfare benefits to a recipient when no clear information about the recipient is available; (3) but … the effects of these default stereotypes are crowded out when direct information is available and, hence, support among Americans and Danes becomes substantially and statistically indistinguishable — despite a lifetime of exposure to different welfare state cultures.

As with all social science experiments, the difficult part is in figuring out how well the experimental results match up with the ways that people process real political information in the real world. Still, these are quite striking findings.

(via Brendan Nyhan)

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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