Do Long Ballots Offer Too Much Democracy?

As (some) people are heading to the polls today to vote in the off-year election, I write in The Atlantic about decision fatigue and how people make biased selections when they are faced with a long list of choices.

When fatigue kicks in, voters may be more likely to vote “no.”

On November 3, voters at polling stations across the country cast their ballots in state and local contests. In addition to elections for offices such as school boards and city councilor, state and local ballot measures will also be decided. Texans, for instance, are voting on seven constitutional amendments, including a proposal that would repeal the requirement that elected state officials reside in Austin, the state capital. People living in Portland, Maine, are deciding whether or not to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour for private employees.

To persuade voters, some campaigns have spent millions of dollars, particularly on controversial issues. One hot button in this election is Issue 3 in Ohio, which would legalize limited sale and use of marijuana, if it is approved. The backers of the yes campaign, named ResponsibleOhio, have reportedly committed more than $20 million. But campaign spending is not the only factor that can sway voters. Research suggests that even the position on the ballot where a certain contest appears will determine how some people vote. If the proposal appears earlier on the ballot, it is more likely to pass. And the difference between a “good” and a “bad” position on the ballot is not small: It can result in a swing of several percentage points.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

Feel guilty: You’ll help society

Today I write in The Boston Globe about guilt, which can really be a force for good. An excerpt:

“SO IF WE are going to be kind,” wrote the South African author J. M. Coetzee, “let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty.” The notion that we should give our time and resources to others because we enjoy being benevolent is a compelling ethos. But research shows that it is not that simple: Oftentimes when we feel bad about ourselves, we are, in fact, more likely to do good things.

Feelings of guilt, in particular, can prompt us to take action for the benefit of others. The reason for this is straightforward: Nobody likes regret or remorse, so we act in a way that we feel less guilty. Consider, for instance, one study that found that participants were more likely to want to reduce water consumption by reusing towels when staying in a hotel if they felt guilty about frequently changing their towels.

Cass Sunstein and I found a similar result — that guilt is a powerful motivator — in a recent experimental study at Harvard Law School. We surveyed some 1,200 Americans and asked them whether they would be interested in enrolling in a green energy program if their state government offered them the opportunity to join one. The respondents who said that they would feel guilty if they did not enroll had a higher likelihood of being interested in signing up.

In other words, when people regret making a choice that they think ultimately may harm others — such as changing towels or consuming less environmentally friendly energy — they can be spurred to do the right thing. And that can have serious implications for policy makers.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

Why paid parental leave is a men’s issue, too

In The Guardian, I write about the benefits that paid parental leave policies have on fathers. An excerpt:

I do not deny all the positive effects that introducing paid parental leave may have on women’s empowerment and the national economy. But the economic impact is not that important; after all, I think most of us would still advocate for paid leave even if research were to find that such a policy causes a drop in GDP or a reduction in labor-force participation. And although helping women have both a family and a career is absolutely crucial, presenting it solely as a women’s issue risks giving the false impression that men have nothing to gain, which makes it so much harder to win support for a much-needed policy change.

Paid parental leave is a men’s and a children’s issue, too. And we men need to step up and make that clear.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

How we should handle prostitution

Today I write about prostitution in Los Angeles Times with Birgitta Ohlsson, a former minister of the Swedish Cabinet, a current member of parliament and the foreign policy spokeswoman for the Swedish Liberal Party. An excerpt:

It is disgraceful that the United States, as reported by the Human Rights Project for Girls, jails victims of sex trafficking as offenders. By some counts, more than 90% of those who are arrested for prostitution in the United States are those who sell sex; fewer than 10% are buyers.

Yet many people in prostitution are victims of exploitation, whereas buyers are often among the privileged. A 2013 survey of American men who frequently bought sex found that almost half had an annual income of $120,000 or more, and close to 80% had graduated from college.

Ultimately, decriminalizing sellers and criminalizing buyers is only part of the solution. Sex workers must have better access to housing, healthcare, education and opportunities to leave the sex industry. There is more to be done not only in the U.S. but also in Sweden to address the widespread stigma, abuse and health risks in prostitution.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

New working paper released: Does Active Choosing Promote Green Energy Use? Experimental Evidence

I have recently released a working paper that I have co-authored with Cass Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University and c0-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The paper presents new data from an online experiment, which suggest that active choosing can be more effective at boosting participation than automatic enrollment because active choosing leads to stronger feelings of guilt. Here is the abstract:

Many officials have been considering whether it is possible or desirable to use choice architecture to increase use of environmentally friendly (“green”) products and activities. The right approach could produce significant environmental benefits, including large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and better air quality. This Article presents new data from an online experiment (N=1,245) in which participants were asked questions about hypothetical green energy programs. The central finding is that active choosing had significantly larger effects than green energy defaults (automatic enrollment in green energy), apparently because of the interaction between people’s feelings of guilt and their feelings of reactance.

More specifically, we report four principal findings. First, forcing participants to make an active choice between a green energy provider and a standard energy provider led to higher enrollment in the green program than did either green energy defaults or standard energy defaults. Second, active choosing caused participants to feel more guilty about not enrolling in the green energy program than did either green energy defaults or standard energy defaults; the level of guilt was positively related to the probability of enrolling. Third, respondents were less likely to approve of the active choosing policy than of the green energy defaults and standard energy defaults. Fourth, respondents appeared to have inferred that green energy automatically would come at a higher cost and/or be of worse quality than less environmentally friendly energy.

These findings raise important questions both for future research and for policymaking. If they reflect real-world behavior, they suggest the potentially large effects of active choosing — perhaps larger, in some cases, than green energy defaults.

Download the paper here.

Simon Hedlin

Corporate social responsibility: The halo effect

This week, I am writing in The Economist about a phenomenon that should at least be of interest (if not of concern) to lawyers and law professors. A new paper finds that prosecutors tend to be influenced by firms’ corporate giving when they investigate businesses for corruption. An excerpt:

Do-gooding policies help firms when they get prosecuted

Jun 27th 2015 | From the print edition

“THERE is one and only one social responsibility of business,” wrote Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist. “To use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” Plenty of climate-change campaigners would argue with that (see article). But even if you accept Friedman’s premise and regard corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies as a waste of shareholders’ money, things may not be absolutely clear-cut. New research suggests that CSR may create monetary value for companies—at least when they are prosecuted for corruption.

The largest firms in America and Britain together spend more than $15 billion a year on CSR, according to an estimate last year by EPG, a consulting firm. This could add value to their businesses in three ways. First, consumers may take CSR spending as a “signal” that a company’s products are of high quality. Second, customers may be willing to buy a company’s products as an indirect way to donate to the good causes it helps. And third, through a more diffuse “halo effect”, whereby its good deeds earn it greater consideration from consumers and others.

Previous studies on CSR have had trouble disentangling these effects because consumers can be affected by all three. A recent paper by Harrison Hong of Princeton University and Inessa Liskovich of the University of Texas attempts to separate them by looking at bribery prosecutions under America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The authors argue that since prosecutors do not consume a company’s products as part of their investigations, they could be influenced only by the halo effect.

The study found that, among prosecuted firms, those with the most comprehensive CSR programmes (as measured by MSCI ESG, a provider of corporate indices) tended to get more lenient penalties. Their analysis ruled out the possibility that it was firms’ political influence, rather than their CSR stance, that accounted for the leniency: companies that contributed more to political campaigns did not receive lower fines.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

Interview about studying abroad, behavioral research, and working habits

In an interview with Nadiga Lundtan, a magazine for economics students at Lund University in Sweden, I discussed some of my current research projects as well as a few pieces of advice that I have for those who are considering studying abroad.

The article is available here (pages 15-17).

Simon Hedlin