Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Consensus Cues, Issue Salience and Policy Preferences: An Experimental Investigation

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Consensus Cues, Issue Salience and Policy Preferences: An Experimental Investigation

Article excerpt

It is well known that group cues and social norms influence opinions about the political and social world. After decades of debate about the role of norms in predicting behavior, psychological research has come to the conclusion that social norms not only initiate action but also guide it in explicit ways (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2003; Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990; Darley & Latane, 1970; Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008; Kerr, 1995; Terry & Hogg, 2001; Turner, 1991). While there is somewhat of a consensus on what norms can affect, a second strain of research focuses on when their causal impact might be greatest and how precisely norms can affect attitudes and behavior (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). Less is known, for example, about whether (and how) issue salience may moderate the impact of group cues and social norms on political attitudes. This study extends the literature on social norms by investigating effects of group consensus cues on support for specific public policies. We also examined whether consensus effects differ by policy salience. After brief discussions of group consensus norms, informational cues, and issue salience, we turn to the results of a survey experiment, embedded in the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Our findings suggest that consensus cues (and as a result, social norms) exert significant effects on attitudes toward public policy, mediated by the extent to which the issues are salient and accessible to the public.

Social Group Norms and Consensus Cues

Individuals tend to feel a drive to be within the normal, standard bounds of identity groups we deem important, even if these groups are relatively unknown. Individuals try to preserve or augment their positive self-image, both public and private, by deviating from social norms only in positive ways and avoiding deviations from social norms in negative ways (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). Social psychologists have characterized two types of social norms: injunctive and descriptive. Injunctive norms refer to individuals' perceptions of the level of approval/disapproval for specific forms of attitudes and behavior among members of a given group. In contrast, descriptive norms refer to individuals' perceptions of how typical or common specific forms of behavior are among members of a group. Existing work outlines the conceptual distinction between these two norms (see Jacobson, Mortensen, & Cialdini, 2011; Jacobson, Mortensen, Jacobson, & Cialdini, 2015; Kredentser, Fabrigar, Smith, & Fulton, 2012). This literature also presents evidence for distinctions in the way individuals process the two forms of normative information which could help bolster arguments for differential effects of factors such as issue salience, importance, personal relevance, and controllability. A growing consensus on social norms finds that preferences and behaviors tend to conform to beliefs about what people normally think or do in a situation; the notion of how other people typically act has been shown to wield a powerful influence across a number of behaviors (Gerber & Rogers, 2009).

Deviance Regulation Theory (DRT) suggests that people maintain their self-image by regulating how they differ from others and by maintaining positive public and private self-perceptions by either a) choosing appropriate ways or b) avoiding inappropriate ways of deviating from social norms (Blanton & Christie, 2003). Noelle-Neumann (1984) suggests there is a spiral of silence in terms of deviating from a social norm; people tend to choose to remain silent when they feel their views are in opposition to the majority. There are two main hypotheses about the causes of the spiral: a) people remain silent due to a fear of isolation when their divergent opinion is uncovered and b) people fear tangible reprisals (i.e. loss of status, loss of a job, etc.). The spiral is created or reinforced when someone in the perceived majority speaks out confidently in support of the majority, causing the minority to be less comfortable voicing a divergent opinion due to fears of isolation or reprisal. …

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