Reactance or Rationalization? Predicting Public Responses to Government Policy
© The Author(s) 2014. The public’s attitudes toward new governmental laws and regulations are frequently at the forefront of public policy debates. Will the public react negatively to a newly implemented public safety regulation or embrace the change? Does the public’s initial favorability toward a proposed environmental policy indicate public opinion and compliance if such a law passed? Social psychological research directly explores these questions and provides insight into how specific policy designs and implementations can shape public response to new regulations. People may exhibit one of two contrasting responses to policies: reactance or rationalization. When a rule is imposed, individuals often display reactance—exaggerating the value of the behavior being banned or restricted. However, individuals also frequently show an opposite, perhaps less conspicuous, tendency—They rationalize government policy; that is, they diminish alternatives and actively justify why the imposed regulations are favorable. In experiments, two factors—individuals’ attentional focus and a policy’s apparent absoluteness—determine whether people react against or rationalize policies that seek to restrict their behavior. In other evidence, people’s motivation to defend the status quo may hinder—but also facilitate—support for public policy changes. The implications can guide public policy design and implementation.
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