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A Dirty Word or a Dirty World? Attribute Framing, Political Affiliation, and Query Theory

(Nudging people… with choice architecture)

A recent study by David Hardisty, Eric Johnson and Elke Weber randomly offered participants various choices between different pricing options for airline tickets. The main distinction was between a surcharge described as a “carbon tax” and an identical charge described as a “carbon offset”.

The tax was unpopular – no real surprise. But when people were asked if they supported making the carbon offset mandatory – which is of course exactly equivalent – the response was highly favourable (around 2 points more positive on a scale from -3 to +3).

Not only was the “mandatory offset” more popular, but it was regarded identically by Democrats and Republicans. The tax, on the other hand, was strongly disliked by Republicans while Democrats made no distinction between taxes and mandatory offsets. Thus the entire effect appears to be due to Republicans' attitudes to tax.

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From the paper
For attribute framing, we argue that labels determine query order. In keeping with research on predecision distortions in information search that help to enhance preference for early favorites among options (Russo, Meloy, & Wilks, 2000), we hypothesize that people will first query reasons for picking the more attractive sounding option, followed by consideration of reasons for the other option (Weber & Johnson, 2009). Given the recent dramatic growth of interest in carbon dioxide reduc- tion in the United States (carbon neutral was the “Word of the Year” in 2006 according to the New Oxford American Diction- ary; Oxford University Press, 2006), we predict that most Americans will be attracted by the more expensive carbon- neutralizing option, querying reason for its choice first, when it is framed as a carbon offset. When framed as a carbon tax, the initial appeal of the more expensive carbon-neutralizing option will be much reduced for Americans who consider taxes to be a dirty word, thus equalizing or reversing the order of queries.

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We explored the effect of attribute framing on choice, labeling charges for environmental costs as either an earmarked tax or an offset. Eight hundred ninety-eight Americans chose between otherwise identical products or services, where one option included a surcharge for emitted carbon dioxide.The cost framing changed preferences for self-identified Republicans and Independents, but did not affect Democrats’ preferences. We explain this interaction by means of query theory and show that attribute framing can change the order in which internal queries supporting one or another option are posed. The effect of attribute labeling on query order is shown to depend on the representations of either taxes or offsets held by people with different political affiliations.