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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Costly Distractions: Focusing on Individual Behavior Undermines Support for Systemic Reforms

Hagmann, D., Liao, Y., Chater, N., & 
Loewenstein, G. (2023, April 22). 


Policy challenges can typically be addressed both through systemic changes (e.g., taxes and mandates) and by encouraging individual behavior change. In this paper, we propose that, while in principle complementary, systemic and individual perspectives can compete for the limited attention of people and policymakers. Thus, directing policies in one of these two ways can distract the public’s attention from the other—an “attentional opportunity cost.” In two pre-registered experiments (n = 1,800) covering three high-stakes domains (climate change, retirement savings, and public health), we show that when people learn about policies targeting individual behavior (such as awareness campaigns), they are more likely to themselves propose policies that target individual behavior, and to hold individuals rather than organizational actors responsible for solving the problem, than are people who learned about systemic policies (such as taxes and mandates, Study 1). This shift in attribution of responsibility has behavioral consequences: people exposed to individual interventions are more likely to donate to an organization that educates individuals rather than one seeking to effect systemic reforms (Study 2). Policies targeting individual behavior may, therefore, have the unintended consequence of redirecting attention and attributions of responsibility away from systemic change to individual behavior.


Major policy problems likely require a realignment of systemic incentives and regulations, as well as measures aimed at individual behavior change. In practice, systemic reforms have been difficult to implement, in part due to political polarization and in part because concentrated interest groups have lobbied against changes that threaten their profits. This has shifted the focus to individual behavior. The past two decades, in particular, have seen increasing popularity of ‘nudges’: interventions that can influence individual behavior without substantially changing economic incentives (Thaler &Sunstein, 2008). For example, people may be defaulted into green energy plans (Sunstein &Reisch, 2013) or 401(k) contributions (Madrian & Shea, 2001), and restaurants may varywhether they place calorie labels on the left or the right side of the menu (Dallas, Liu, &Ubel, 2019). These interventions have enjoyed tremendous popularity, because they can often be implemented even when opposition to systemic reforms is too large to change economic incentives. Moreover, it has been argued that nudges incur low economic costs, making them extremely cost effective even when the gains are small on an absolute scaleTor & Klick (2022).

In this paper, we document an important and so far unacknowledged cost of such interventions targeting individual behavior, first postulated by Chater and Loewenstein(2022). We show that when people learn about interventions that target individual behavior, they shift their attention away from systemic reforms compared to those who learn about systemic reforms. Across two experiments, we find that this subsequently  affects their attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, they become less likely to propose systemic policy reforms, hold governments less responsible for solving the policy problem, and are less likely to support organizations that seek to promote systemic reform.The findings of this study may not be news to corporate PR specialists. Indeed, as would be expected according to standard political economy considerations (e.g., Stigler,1971), organizations act in a way that is consistent with a belief in this attentional opportunity cost account. Initiatives that have captured the public’s attention, including recycling campaigns and carbon footprint calculators, have been devised by the very organizations that stood to lose from further regulation that might have hurt their bottomline (e.g., bottle bills and carbon taxes, respectively), potentially distracting individual citizens, policymakers, and the wider public debate from systemic changes that are likely to be required to shift substantially away from the status quo.