Panel Paper: Biases in How Citizens Judget Government Performance: Experimental Findings from the US and Denmark

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Hong Kong (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Gregg Van Ryzin1, Martin Bækgaard2, Oliver James3 and Søren Serritzlew2, (1)Rutgers University, (2)Aarhus University, (3)University of Exeter

The performance movement in government assumes that providing citizens with factual information about the performance of public programs and services will facilitate informed use of services, enhance democratic accountability, and build public trust. However, recent research in public management has found evidence of ideological and political biases in reasoning when performance information is processed by citizens. Baekgaard and Serritzlew (2015) found that citizens often infer false conclusions from unambiguous information about the performance of public and private agencies, depending on their prior preferences for public over private service provision. In another study, James and Van Ryzin (2016) found that citizens, when primed to think politically, exhibit partisan bias in their choice of performance indicators and ratings of evidence about the Affordable Care Act. However, when citizens were primed to think about their need for health care, the partisan bias was greatly reduced. These two studies suggest that citizens are prone to making errors in processing government performance information in the presence of ideological or political cues—but these errors may be reduced by reminding citizens of their personal need for public services.

This paper presents new findings from a set of follow-up experiments that combine key elements of the two previous experiments. Specifically, we seek to assess if priming service need compared to priming political ideology (from James and Van Ryzin 2016) reduces political bias in the assessment of unambiguous performance information (from Baekgaard and Serritzlew 2015). In this new integrated experimental design, we employ the strengths of both previous experimental paradigms to more clearly establish whether priming citizens about politics encourages biased reasoning, while priming them to consider their need for a public service enhances accuracy. The policy context is health care, which is a universal right in Denmark and an object of political contention in the US. The new experiments are being run separately in the two countries in 2017, using online research panels of over 1000 adults in each county.

Our expected findings are these: Citizens whose priors are in discordance with the content of the performance information will make more errors in interpretation when primed to think politically, exhibiting a bias in favor of their political ideology. However, when primed to think about their need for health care, we expect to find fewer errors and more accurate interpretations. We also include a neutral prime to assess effects relative to this neutral benchmark. Moreover, focusing on two very different countries allows us to assess if results are more general than a single country context. We expect our findings will replicate aspects of the previous studies, potentially reproducing similar results, and will extend the evidence about how motivated reasoning influences citizens’ interpretation of government performance information in democratic societies.

Baekgaard, M., & Serritzlew, S. (2016). Interpreting performance information: Motivated reasoning or unbiased comprehension. PAReview, 76(1), 73-82.

James, O., & Van Ryzin, G.G. (2017). Motivated Reasoning about Public Performance: An Experimental Study of How Citizens Judge the Affordable Care Act. JPART, 27(1), 197-209.