The world we live in affects our beliefs, opinions and behaviors. Sometimes this happens in relatively obvious ways, like when we have a discussion with someone and that discussion changes our mind.

But more often, the process of change occurs gradually and without our awareness: we realize one day that we no longer hold the opinions we once did. What was it that made us change our mind? 

My academic research asks how, when, and why the world affects our choices, our perceptions of what is appropriate or fair, and our political opinions.

Click on the research topics below to reveal paper titles, abstracts, and links to full papers.

The psychology of income inequality

My main research project is about attitudes toward income inequality. Using survey data and experiments, I demonstrate that being exposed to statistics about high CEO pay makes people think of higher CEO pay as appropriate. However, it does not make people more dissatisfied with the extent of inequality. I also show similar effects of inequality in a lab environment: when people take part in a game where the prizes are unequal, they subsequently end up suggesting unequal prizes as a fair outcome of the game.

Overall, living in an unequal environment makes people systematically more likely to think of inequality as an acceptable, or even desirable, outcome. This counter-intuitive effect can explain why increasing inequality is not necessarily met with public disapproval.

Attitudes toward redistribution and the welfare state

“The Two Facets of Social Policy Preferences” (with Charlotte Cavaillé) (2015) The Journal of Politics, 77 (1), 146-160. (gated linkungated link)

Abstract: Most political economy models start from the assumption that economic self-interest is a key predictor of support for income redistribution. A growing literature, in contrast, emphasizes the role of “other-oriented” concerns, such as social solidarity or affinity for the poor. These frameworks generate distinct, often conflicting predictions about variation in mass attitudes toward redistribution. We argue that this tension is in part an artifact of conceptualizing demand for redistribution as unidimensional, and propose distinguishing between redistribution conceived as taking from the “rich” and redistribution conceived as giving to the “poor”. These two facets of redistribution prime different individual motives: self-oriented income-maximization on the one hand, and other-oriented social affinity with welfare beneficiaries on the other. We find strong evidence for this framework using British longitudinal survey data and cross-sectional data from four advanced industrial countries. We discuss the implications for studying changes in mass support for redistributive social policies.

The desire to believe the world is a fair place

“Does Inequality Activate the System Justification Motivation?” (with Ariel White) (under review).

Abstract: The central finding of system justification theory is that individuals have a psychological need to support, defend and justify their social system. While this motivation is thought to exist (to varying degrees) in all individuals, members of disadvantaged groups may have a stronger system justification motivation than members of advantaged groups. Such a disparity would be consistent with a prediction from system justification theory that we call the inequality-induced motivation hypothesis: the idea that inequality itself has a causal effect on individuals’ level of system justification motivation. This hypothesis yields the counter-intuitive prediction that people disadvantaged by a system should be equally or even more likely to rate the system as fair, possibly making political responses to inequality less likely as inequality grows more extreme. Research on this hypothesis to date has been based on cross-national survey data and has provided mixed results. In this paper, we take an experimental approach and ask whether economic inequality activates the system justification motivation. In addition, we compare different ways of measuring the system justification motivation, asking whether some of the null results in survey research have been due to the availability of only imperfect measures. Across three studies with a range of different samples, experimental treatments, and outcome measures, we find no evidence that information about economic inequality increases system justification motivation.

Partisan reactions to government spending

“The Polarizing Effect of the Stimulus: Partisanship and Voter Responsiveness to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” (with Katherine Einstein and Vanessa Williamson) (2016) Presidential Studies Quarterly 46 (2) 264-283 (gated linkungated link)

Abstract: We examine the effect of a sudden influx of government spending, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), on support for the President’s party. Using a difference-indifferences design, we find that stimulus spending had a modest positive effect on Democratic vote share, but only in counties that were already Democratic-leaning. In Republican counties, by contrast, government spending had a small, but significant negative effect on Democratic vote share. That is to say, ARRA polarized already partisan places. These results have important implications for the study of voter responsiveness to government spending and the measurement of the political effects of policy visibility.

  • A blog post summarizing this article appeared on the Monkey Cage.

The promises and pitfalls of using 311 data in social science

“The Promises and Pitfalls of 311 Data” (with Ariel White) (forthcoming in Urban Affairs Review) (gated link, ungated link, online appendix)

Abstract: Local governments operate 311 service request lines across the United States, and the publicly available data from these lines provide a continuously measured, geographically fine-grained, and non-self-reported measure of citizens’ interactions with government. It seems a promising measure of neighborhood political participation. However, these data are empirically and theoretically different from many common citizen-level participation measures. We compare geographically aggregated 311 call data with three other measures of political and civic participation: voter turnout, political donations, and census return rates. We show that rates of 311 calls are negatively related to lower cost activities (voter turnout and census return rates), but positively related to the high-cost activity of campaign donation. We caution against interpreting 311 data as a generic measure of political engagement or participation, at least in the absence of high-quality controls for neighborhood condition. However, we argue that these data are still potentially useful for researchers, because they are by definition a measure of the service demands that neighborhoods place on city governments.