Looking Past Laziness – The Effect of Negative Deservingness Cues on Welfare Support Across Different Levels of Issue Salience

by Felix Grünewald

Thesis supervisor: Dr. Alessandro Nai

Deservingness cues, that is descriptions of welfare recipients as unwilling to work, unreciprocating and similar, have been shown to negatively affect support for welfare spending. Crucially, this effect has been argued to diminish the positive effect of egalitarian values in the opinion formation process. This thesis explores whether increased issue salience can act as a moderator and bring values back into the equation. It does so by expanding an established experimental design on the effect of deservingness cues by an issue salience treatment.

Respondents in an online experiment, before reading negatively or neutrally cued descriptions of welfare recipients, are exposed to news articles that differ in their share of welfare related news. They are shown six news articles which are based on real-world news but edited to include a minimal amount of party-references. In a pre-test, each article was evaluated on its believability and its perceived topic. Based on this evaluation, six welfare and six non-welfare articles were chosen, of which respondents received a differently distributed selection, ranging between 0-6 welfare articles. This share of welfare news articles is used as a measure for issue salience.

Due to the unavailability of a tool that was planned to be used in the thesis, a different method for the news presentation had to be found. The solution was achieved using Java-Script in Qualtrics. Apart from the share of topics, the news articles had to be randomised in their order and the probability for each different article to appear. This was necessary to prevent effects unrelated to the topic share of the news articles. A script was written that randomised the order of articles for the two topic categories, then took a random number (0-6) from the list of welfare articles, completed a list of these articles with non-welfare news, again randomised the order of this list and finally presented all items from the list in a format that most closely mirrored a real-world online news environment.

Subsequently, respondents were guided through an established design for deservingness cues. In this, they are exposed to a description of a welfare recipient. These descriptions, however, are differently cued on the deservingness dimension, which means that the recipients’ need for welfare is characterised as caused by laziness or despite hard work. It is assumed that negative cues here negatively affect the welfare attitudes of recipients. Furthermore, they should reduce the role of egalitarian values, whereby this effect is expected to be conditional on the salience manipulation through the news articles treatment.

Results can confirm a remarkably strong effect of negative cues on welfare support, for the first time also confirming an effect on policy attitudes. This effect is moderated by the news article treatment, directly and by affecting the influence of values. This indicates that the effect of deservingness is in fact conditional, and that people are able to look past cues. However, unexpected results in the behaviour of the Egalitarianism measure, as well as the manipulation of the news article treatment hamper substantial interpretations of this mechanism. To allow more substantial analyses of the findings, further research is necessary to shed light on several unexpected relationships in this survey.