The psychology of uncertainty, repeal and the individual mandate

at 09:29 AM ET, 01/23/2012


(J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
Eric Horowitz flags new research in the journal Psychological Science that sheds some light on why the uncertainty around the health reform law’s fate may be making Americans more resistant to its individual mandate, the requirement to purchase health insurance.

Psychologists Kristin Laurin, Aaron Kay and Gavin Fitzsimmons note that people tend to react to laws restricting their freedom in two different ways. We either rationalize the new restriction, telling ourselves to make the best of it, or we resist, responding negatively to new limits on freedom. That leads these researchers to ask: Why do some restrictions get met with rationalization, and others with resistance?

The differentiating factor, they find is absoluteness, the degree to which the new restriction is perceived inevitable — and the individual mandate, at this point, isn’t.

The researchers asked subjects how they felt about lower speed limits. Subjects were pretty much fine with the new restriction when they were told it was certainty, but had more negative reactions when told that the law would still need another vote to come into effect:

Across two studies, participants responded to absolute restrictions (i.e., restrictions that were sure to come into effect) with rationalization: They viewed the restrictions more favorably, and valued the restricted freedoms less, compared with control participants. Participants responded in the opposite way to identical restrictions that were described as nonabsolute (i.e., as having a small chance of not coming into effect).

As far as the health reform law, and its mandated purchase of health insurance go, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The Supreme Court won’t rule on the law’s constitutionality until this summer and, even after that, the law’s fate still hangs on the 2012 election. The uncertainty around the individual mandate’s fate may explain why its consistently the least popular part of the law, being met with resistance rather than rationalization.

 
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