I have coauthored a lot of academic essays, but finally, I’ve produced something that everyone absolutely loves.
Wow. Just wow.
In a recent paper, Harvard law fellow Meirav Furth-Matzkin and I explore this question: Do people’s views about policies shift after they learn that majorities support them? Psychologists call it “social proof”: If you find out that most people like a new product, you’re more likely to buy it. Evidence also suggests that for drug use, energy consumption, and tax compliance, people’s behavior shifts as a result of learning what most other people do. But are policy judgments similarly malleable?
Yes. Across a wide range of issues, a lot more people will support a policy if they think that the majority supports it.
In our research, Furth-Matzkin and I surveyed hundreds of Americans with diverse political views. We presented these people with identical policies. Half were asked to assume that most people supported each policy; half were asked to assume that most people opposed it.
When told that most Americans favored a policy presuming that people consent to be organ donors, 56 percent supported that policy. When told that most people opposed the policy, the level of support fell to 43 percent. When told that the majority wanted to require large electricity suppliers to automatically enroll people in green-energy programs, 73 percent supported the policy. When the majority opposed it, the level of support fell to 65 percent.
On policies relating to retirement savings, obesity, fuel efficiency, and even discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, levels of support were significantly influenced by people’s perception of majority opinion — sometimes enough to turn minority support into majority support, or vice-versa.
There’s good reason for that. On many policy issues, people aren’t certain what they ought to think. The views of the majority provide relevant information.
People are hardly sheep. While Furth-Matzkin and I found that the effect of the majority opinion is significant, it’s not massive: In many cases, the level of approval is about 10 percent higher when the majority supports it than when the majority opposes it. That means that most people stay about where they are. The population-wide shift is produced by a minority whose views depend on what the majority thinks.
On some issues, moreover, people’s convictions are fixed and firm. We found that when survey respondents say that they feel strongly about an issue, or report that it relates to their core values, they are much less influenced by what the majority thinks. On policies related to abortion and transgender issues, for example, levels of support are little moved by whether the majority shows support or opposition.
Sometimes, people specifically resist the majority view. For example, most Americans reject a ban on smoking. But people who tend to favor government paternalism turn out to be significantly more likely to support such a ban when informed that most people oppose it.
But the broadest lesson is that knowledge of the majority’s opinion can be a powerful tool for policymakers. If they want more support for a certain policy, they can simply tell the public that many or most people already support it.
Donald Trump, for one, appears to know this well. He often emphasizes that his decisions and policies have strong public support. Recently, he said that “we’ve been met with you know, really, very good reviews of the people we’ve chosen.” With respect to Defense Department nominee James Mattis, he added, “the crowd loves him.”
Did the president-elect read our paper? Maybe. After all, most people have.
Cass R. Sunstein is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of “The World According to Star Wars.”