Let’s say you are a policymaker who wants to fight the obesity epidemic. Should you give people the tools to make better decisions, such as listing calorie counts on menus? Or should you ban certain types of junk food altogether, perhaps forbidding the sale of jumbo-sized sugary sodas?
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Banning junk food probably feels like it will have more of an impact. But now take the perspective of a regular citizen. Would you still prefer to have your drink choices dictated to you?
This demonstrates a common phenomenon: when people are on the receiving end of help, they tend to prefer something called agentic aid, which allows them to choose how to respond, says Adam Waytz, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. Yet people often prefer the opposite—paternalistic policies—when helping others.
New research by Waytz and colleagues suggests a possible explanation for both behaviors.
The researchers found that people show more support for paternalistic policies if they believe recipients are not very mentally capable—that is, if recipients seem unlikely to exercise self-control, plan ahead, and make thoughtful decisions. Yet participants tended to think more highly of their own mental capabilities than of others’, thus expressing stronger support for agentic aid for themselves.
The study does not tell us whether one form of aid is always better. It depends on the situation, Waytz says.
“We need to be aware of how judgments of mental capacity inform our decisions,” Waytz says. “Choosing paternalistic policies for ourselves might not always be such a bad idea.”
Interestingly, his team also found the reverse: participants thought that people who received paternalistic aid are less mentally capable. The finding suggests that giving this type of help, such as offering food instead of money to the poor, may hurt the recipients’ public image.
Paternalistic Policies and Mental Capacity
Previous research suggests that giving cash directly to the poor is an effective way to improve their well-being.
“People seem to know what to do with their money,” Waytz says. For instance, recipients might need funds to start a business more than they need the food or job training offered by a charity.
But charities often give paternalistic aid, partly because it is the status quo. Donors also may fear that recipients will spend money frivolously. “We don’t necessarily trust the people who are in poverty to get themselves out,” Waytz says.
On the flip side, people may not like receiving paternalistic aid because they feel it threatens their personal freedom or harms their self-esteem.
Waytz and his collaborators, Juliana Schroeder of the University of California, Berkeley, and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, wondered if people’s beliefs about the recipients’ mental capacity also might explain these tendencies.
The researchers conducted an online study with 100 people through Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants read about the real agentic charity GiveDirectly, which gives money to poor people in Kenya and Uganda.
Participants then rated the charity’s effectiveness, as well as elements of the recipients’ mental capacity, such as their self-restraint and ability to plan. Finally, participants received 25 cents and could choose to donate some or all of it to GiveDirectly or to the Red Cross, which provides more paternalistic aid. Participants keep any money they chose not to donate.
The participants’ view of recipients’ mental capability made a difference. When people gave the recipients higher scores for mental capability, they tended to think that GiveDirectly would do a better job of helping the poor. They also gave more money to that charity.
If participants learned that an organization had provided refugees with food or shelter, rather than cash, they believed the refugees were mentally weaker.
Another study found that making the recipients seem more capable boosts people’s support for agentic aid. In this online study, participants read about GiveDirectly’s aid to an anonymized African country dubbed Nia. One group read statistics about Nians stated in a way that emphasized their lack of mental capacity, for example, that 14 percent are illiterate. The other group read the same information stated in a way that emphasized their mental capacity, for example, that 86 percent of Nians are literate.
People in the second group rated GiveDirectly’s effectiveness about one point higher (on a seven-point scale) than those in the first group. They also donated more money to GiveDirectly than to the Red Cross, while participants who read the negative descriptions did the opposite.
Me vs. Them
Next, the researchers explored people’s support for paternalistic policies when applied to themselves versus others.
People might assume, “I can think for myself, I have good self-control,” Waytz says. But they might perceive others as mentally weaker, and deem a paternalistic policy a better fit.
To explore this, the team divided online study participants into two groups. One group was told to imagine that their governor was considering legislation on issues such as credit card debt, while the other group was asked to pretend they were the governor of Ohio and needed to decide which policies would most benefit residents. Participants had to choose between paternalistic measures, such as imposing maximum credit limits, and agentic measures, such as offering information about payment penalties.
The first group, which imagined they would be the recipients of new policies, supported the paternalistic option on average 1.77 times out of five. But the second group, which was acting as policymaker, picked that option 2.36 times out of five.
The Turkey Test
Yet, despite our rosiest visions of ourselves, our self-restraint does fail sometimes. So the team pounced on study participants at a vulnerable moment: Thanksgiving.
“Virtually all of us have experienced a self-control lapse,” Waytz says. “After you just gorged yourself, presumably, on turkey and pie and potatoes, then your perception of yourself would be lowered in that regard.”
The researchers sent a survey to 100 participants a couple days before Thanksgiving; another 98 people received it Thanksgiving night. Recipients answered questions about the effectiveness of paternalistic and agentic policies to promote healthy eating, such as making restaurant portion sizes smaller versus running ads about the issue.
Then people rated their agreement with statements about their mental capacity, such as “Everything I do is on purpose” and “I have excellent self-control.”
Not surprisingly, the participants’ average rating of their mental strength dropped from 4.55 out of 7 before Thanksgiving to 4.17 afterward. At the same time, the estimates of paternalistic policies’ effectiveness rose from 3.50 to 3.99.
In other words, the post-holiday group was more willing to admit, “Okay, yeah, I guess paternalistic policies are somewhat useful, even for me,” Waytz says.
So if a manager wants to enforce strict workplace rules—say, blocking social-media websites—they might succeed if such measures are suggested the day after people have been glued to their Facebook and Twitter feeds during a news scandal.
Erasing a Stigma
What about the reverse? Does the type of aid that people receive affect how others perceive their mental capacity?
An online experiment suggests it does. If participants learned that an organization had provided refugees with food or shelter, rather than cash, they believed the refugees were mentally weaker. And they thought recipients were more likely to waste money on drugs and alcohol.
When charities offer people paternalistic help, others “are going to infer that those people don’t know how to think for themselves,” Waytz says. Thus, organizations could make a dent in the stigma surrounding the poor by giving agentic aid.
The study does not tell us whether one form of aid is always better. It depends on the situation, Waytz says.
For instance, default enrollment in company retirement plans—a paternalistic tactic—tends to result in higher participation. But research about the poor suggests that “the best way to help someone in need is just give them money and get out of the way,” he says.
So are people overestimating their own mental abilities or underestimating others’? Both likely play a role, Waytz says, but the latter effect may be stronger because people do not know much about others’ efforts to plan ahead and make considered decisions.
“You walk around with a spotlight on your own mind at all times,” he says. “We underestimate others’ mental capacity because we don’t see all the times that others have been thoughtful.”
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