Can New Rules Shape Public Opinion?
Regulations don't only force behavior change—they can also shape attitudes.
Posted March 16, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
If you’re hoping to save the planet, you might think that your first task is convincing everyone about the threats of climate change. Or if you're hoping to convince people to practice "social distancing" and avoid bars and clubs as the world deals with COVID-19, you might think you should first persuade them to form a positive opinion of such public health initiatives. After all, if you could move people’s opinions, you can change their behavior.
Sure, people’s opinions are often indicative of their future behavior. People who prefer a certain brand of shampoo will buy that brand at the store. People who support a particular policy at work are happy to comply with it. The relationship between attitudes and behavior isn’t perfect, but the link is often there.
But what if this is a two-way street? Our attitudes can guide our behavior, but could our behavior shape our attitudes? If this is the case, then focusing on ways to shape people’s behavior could eventually result in changes to their opinions.
The Case of Seat Belt Legislation
In 1975, the Swedish government enacted a law requiring front-seat passengers in private cars to wear a seat belt. Before this law, roughly 30% of people were wearing seat belts. A few months after the law went into effect, 85% of people wore seat belts. Pretty effective!
But Swedes weren’t clamoring for this legislation. A few years before the law, a nationally representative survey found that people typically believed seat belts were uncomfortable and inconvenient, and they were skeptical that they were all that effective.
Nevertheless, the new law certainly changed people’s behavior. Did it change their attitudes as well? Gunilla Fhanér and Monica Hane looked at another nationally representative survey of hundreds of Swedes in 1976. They found that after the law was enacted, people thought seat belts were more comfortable, less inconvenient, and more effective at preventing injuries, compared to responses in the 1971 survey.
Social Judgments Following New Laws
The previous example highlights how people’s evaluations of everyday safety features can change with legislation, but laws might also shape how we see other people and judge their behavior.
For example, in 2009, prostitution was criminalized in Norway. When they looked at national surveys, Andreas Kotsdam and Niklas Jakobsson found that at least in Oslo, where exposure to prostitution had been quite high, people judged prostitution as more wrong following the new law.
More recently, Eugene Ofosu and his colleagues looked at whether laws allowing same-sex marriage in the United States may have changed attitudes toward non-heterosexual people. They were able to look at about a million measures of people’s prejudice over many years to see whether those prejudices depended on whether that person’s state had legalized same-sex marriage. After legalization, anti-gay bias began to decline more sharply.
These shifts in anti-gay prejudices following same-sex marriage laws have also been shown in Europe.
What Do Laws Have to Do With It?
There are plenty of reasons why changes in the law trickle down into people’s personal opinions. I’ll briefly touch on a few explanations.
First, the theory of cognitive dissonance has long been in the business of explaining how behavior shapes attitudes. The main idea is that people crave a sense of coherence in the world, so they will adjust their own attitudes to align with their behavior. In a classic example of this, children were forbidden from playing with a particular toy, and eventually, they said, “You know, I don’t even like that toy.” For Swedes who started wearing seat belts, it just wouldn’t make sense to still hate the thing they do all the time.
New regulations might also open our eyes to misconceptions we’ve had. Indeed, some studies indicate that when people erroneously think something is bad, they typically don’t discover the truth because when given the choice, they avoid engaging with it altogether. But legal mandates may require people to confront things they didn’t like. For instance, seat belts might seem uncomfortable, but it’s only when you’re required to wear them that you realize they’re not so bad.
Finally, laws can communicate a society’s moral priorities. In one set of controlled experiments, when a trusted institution enforced severe punishment for a particular behavior, people came to view that behavior as more immoral.
Legislation as Persuasion
In sum, there seems to be plenty of evidence that enacting new laws that primarily regulate people’s behavior can eventually affect people’s opinions.
But not so fast! I’m sure you can think of times when laws and regulations are rejected by the public. The next challenge is to understand when laws ultimately shape public opinion and when they don’t. In fact, in some cases, laws can create backlash. We know from years of research on the concept of “psychological reactance” that forcing people to do something can be counterproductive, provoking exactly the behaviors a law is trying to get rid of.
Nevertheless, it still seems that gentle nudges to change people’s behaviors can start a process of opinion change. So it might be difficult to convince everyone about the perils of climate change and the virtues of eco-friendly living, but regulations that encourage environmentally friendly choices may ultimately get us there. And maybe enacting measures that require people to avoid bars and restaurants can eventually get the public to support these public health measures more generally.
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