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The Interaction of Fear and Framing in Influencing Perceptions of the Social Security Debate: An Internet Experiment

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Principal Investigator(s):

Becca Levy
Yale University
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Brian Elbel
New York University
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Sample size: 507
Field period: 9/13/2006-9/23/2006



Social Security reform has become a contest among elites framing matters to seem more conducive with their preferred ideologies and strategies of reform. Past studies demonstrate the impact of elite framing on citizens’ political cognition, reflected in the persuasiveness of specific arguments and the perceived reliability of different sources of information. Elites also strive to influence public attitudes through emotional priming. The most common priming involves fear and anxiety; frequently used in the past to induce policy change. Fear appeals of this sort have been documented to shape public attitudes and behavior.
To date, the influences of elite framing and priming on Americans’ political thinking have been studied in isolation from one another. This intellectual history led researchers to overlook some possibly key interactions between cognitive frames and emotional priming. We aim to address this interaction in the following proposal.
We will examine this interaction of cognitive frames and emotional priming by taking advantage of the recent attention to Social Security reform. The debate between preserving the current program and “privatizing” a portion of its benefits can be treated as a choice between a stable program and a relatively risky alternative. These differences in perceived risk allow us to introduce gain versus loss framing, demonstrated in a long-line of experiments to powerfully affect policy-relevant choices. The plethora of rhetoric on this topic makes it possible to identify from real political speeches examples of positive (hope) and negative (fear) emotional priming. By randomly exposing participants to (a) depictions of retirement and retirement policies that elicit either fear or hope and (b) a description of Social Security reform framed in terms of either gains or losses, we will examine the influence of emotional priming, framing, and the interaction of these conditions on support for the privatization as opposed to preserving the current Social Security system, information seeking related to the debate and attitudes toward the elder beneficiaries.


1A: Loss frame will lead to greater support for privatization whereas gain frame will lead to greater support for protecting existing Social Security program.
1B: Fear prime will lead to greater support for privatization than hope or neutral primes.
2: Moderate levels of fear will reinforce framing effects (as listed in 1A) but high levels of fear will depress these framing effects.
3: Those with congruent valances of emotional primes and framing (e.g., fear and loss) will have greater confidence in their preference for the future of social security than those with neutral and framing or those with incongruent valances (e.g., hope and loss).
4A: Modest levels of fear about retirement or retirement policy will stimulate more information seeking about the future of social security than high levels of fear.
4B: Those exposed to fear primes and loss frames will show more information aversion than exposed to other emotion and frame combinations.
5A: Those exposed to fear primes will express more negative attitudes toward the elderly than those exposed to hope or neutral primes.
5B: Those exposed to loss frame will express more negative attitudes toward the elderly than those exposed to gain frame.
5C: The fear prime and loss frame will interact, such that those exposed to both will show a more negative attitudes toward elderly than those exposed to other emotion and frame combinations

Experimental Manipulations:

Factor 1: Emotional Prime(Neutral, Fear, Hope)
Factor 2: Policy Choice Frame (Gain Frame, Loss Frame)

Key Dependent Variables:

Policy choices, perceptions of beneficiary.

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