Hebrew University study shows public preference for retaining policy status quo in referendums

01/31/05

The chances of gaining approval for a change in public policy through a referendum are about 50 percent or lower, research conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has shown. This is the case, even if a government is sure of its chances of gaining approval of its policy via the referendum process, the research indicates.

The research is part of a doctoral thesis written by Dr. Avital Moshinsky on the subject, "The Status-Quo Bias in Policy Judgment." Her research incorporated all the national referendums held in 26 democratic countries up to 1993.

Dr. Moshinsky said her analyses indicate that when a person is required to make important decisions regarding changes in an existing situation, he will give greater weight to that which he stands to lose rather than any gain that may result from change. Therefore, there is great reluctance to approve a departure from the existing situation.

According to Dr. Moshinsky, when a regime brings a proposal to the public for its vote, it expects that it will pass; otherwise it would refrain from taking this step. Indeed, Dr. Moshinsky found in her study of previous referendums that when a public vote was held to approve existing policy, the rate of approval was quite high -- 80 to 85 percent. However, in cases in which a change in policy was up for decision, the results show that the approval rate was only about 50 percent or lower.

The use of public referendums has grown considerably in recent years in the world Israel is one of only a handful of democratic countries in which such a referendum has never been held.

Dr. Moshinsky's thesis was written under the supervision of Prof. Maya Bar-Hillel form the Center for Rationality and Interactive Decision Theory and the Department of Psychology of the Hebrew University. The questions posed by her thesis was, Do people tend to adhere to the existing situation when they are presented with the alternative of a change in policy? The thesis was tested both under laboratory conditions and also outside of it. The results showed a definite preference for retaining the status quo.

For example, in one test, two different groups were presented with alternatives regarding a change in restrictions on television advertising of alcoholic drinks. For one group, alternative #1 (keeping the restrictions) was presented as the status quo and alternative #2 (removing the restrictions) was proposed as the change. In the other group, the roles of the two alternatives were reversed, with alternative #2 being presented as the status quo and alternative #1 as the change. The results showed that a majority in both groups was in favor of retaining the existing policy, even though their opinions were direct opposites to each other, thus showing the clear preference to retain the status quo as opposed to change.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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