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My work to date has covered a variety of topics, such as macroeconomic shocks and inequality aversion, economic insecurity and voting behavior, social distance between groups and the formation of economic views, people’s numeric ability and attention to different persuasive information, and the effect of economic inequality on policy attitudes, economic beliefs, political participation, and attitudes toward immigrants and democracy. Below you can find more specific information for several of my research papers.

The Motivated Response to Economic Inequality: Experimental Evidence from Sweden

Why is economic inequality positively associated with beliefs in economic fairness, even among the poor? Integrating recent behavioral research, I argue that information about inequality can be threatening to people’s deep-seated motivation to feel good about themselves. Beliefs about meritocracy boost feelings of personal control and optimism, which increase the psychological incentive – in particular for the poor – to embrace such beliefs, in a biasing, protective fashion, as inequality grows. The middle class, however, are more successful in inhibiting such a motivated response, instead actively updating their beliefs in order to learn about inequality, and producing a greater rejection of meritocracy. I demonstrate this using an original, two-wave national survey experiment in the “least likely” case of Sweden, where information about inequality was provided and selected by respondents. This has implications for the study of inequality and redistribution, the changing welfare state in Europe, broader economic beliefs, and for assumptions about information and ignorance in political behavior.

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Bayesian Updaters or Motivated Learners: How Social Distance Shapes Economic Self-Perceptions, Beliefs and Affinity

What shapes economic views, such as expected mobility, class perception, beliefs in meritocracy and affinity toward economic groups? Some studies tend to assume that such critical views are based on objective conditions, and driven by economic self-interest, while others focus on the dominant role of political partisanship and group identity. This article integrates these perspectives, centered on the assumption that individuals are driven by the desires to form accurate views of the world, and to feel good about themselves. These two motives interact with social identities, as groups provide the heuristic information and motivational impetus which shape economic views. The perceived social distance between economic groups, influenced by economic differences and cross-cutting cleavages, becomes essential. This helps explain the bias and determinants of economic views, and has implications for the relationship between group homogeneity, inequality, and public opinion. The argument is tested using an incentivized laboratory experiment around economic redistribution.

Are We in the Same Boat or Not? The Opposite Effects of Absolute and Relative Income Shifts on Redistributive Preferences (with Agnar Helgason)

What are the effects of economic mobility and macroeconomic cycles on redistributive preferences? These questions have gained more prominence in recent years, yet our main theoretical frameworks often provide conflicting predictions and empirical evidence has been contradictory. We argue that this confusion is mostly due to the crucial distinction between absolute and relative income shifts, both of which are produced during economic cycles yet are rarely separated conceptually or empirically. After relative income shifts, differences are made salient, resulting in more self-interested behavior. Conversely, after absolute income shifts, similarities become more apparent, resulting in more group-driven behavior. We demonstrate this experimentally, using a novel “redistribution game.” The results indicate that expected shifts in absolute and relative income have mostly opposite effects on preferences, highlighting the importance of carefully conceptualizing and measuring the effects of income shifts. This has implications for how we think about economic perceptions and evaluations.
(MerolaHelgason_JOP.pdf)

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Employment Insecurity, Incumbent Partisanship, and Voting Behavior in Comparative Perspective (with Agnar Helgason)

We argue that occupational unemployment rates, by informing perceptions of economic insecurity, serve as a salient and powerful heuristic for aggregate economic performance. Consequently, high and rising occupational unemployment leads to negative evaluations of the economy and reduces the probability of supporting the incumbent government. Simultaneously, however, such changes shift support toward left-wing parties. Thus, economic insecurity serves as a valence issue, but is also inherently a positional issue, due to the distributional consequences of welfare policies. This brings about a potential conflict, as under left-wing incumbent governments, the economically insecure are cross-pressured, which increases their likelihood of exiting the electoral arena completely. We test our hypotheses using a Bayesian hierarchical multinomial model, with individual level data from 43 elections in 21 countries. We find support for the hypothesized effects of employment insecurity on voting behavior, with a follow-up analysis supporting the posited informational mechanism.

The Structure of Economic Inequality and Redistributive Demands in Latin America: the Role of Race and Class

Why do highly unequal, democratic developing countries not redistributive more income? More specifically, why does evidence show that the poor in Latin America are less dissatisfied with inequality in the more unequal parts of the region? I argue that redistributive demands in Latin America are strongly shaped by the group-based structure of economic inequality, such that the poor are actually more tolerant of inequality, and thus demand less redistribution, whenever there is greater inequality within their racial and ethnic group. Such structural conditions lead to greater expectations of mobility, and a greater belief in the fairness of the economic system, paradoxically. Those economically better off exhibit the reversed pattern, with greater support for redistribution as within-group inequality increases, but not as between-group inequality rises. This is demonstrated using the AmericasBarometer survey, with data from 24 countries, 2008-2014, and based on a Bayesian multilevel linear model. Estimates for the group-based structure of inequality are based on a Bayesian measurement model, using income and wealth data from the surveys. These results have implications for how we think about inequality and mobility in Latin America, as well as broader theories of redistribution and economic beliefs and perceptions.

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Numeracy and the Persuasive Effect of Policy Information and Party Cues (with Matt Hitt)

Numeric political appeals represent a prevalent but overlooked domain of public opinion research. When can quantitative information change political attitudes, and is this change trumped by partisan effects? We analyze how numeracy—or individual differences in citizens’ ability to process and apply numeric policy information—moderates the effectiveness of numeric political appeals on a moderately salient policy issue. Results show that those low in numeracy exhibit a strong party-cue effect, treating numeric information in a superficial and heuristic fashion. Conversely, those high in numeracy are persuaded by numeric information, even when it is sponsored by the opposing party, overcoming the party-cue effect. Our results make clear that overlooking numeric ability when analyzing quantitative political appeals can mask significant persuasion effects, and we build on recent work advancing the understanding of individual differences in public opinion.
(MerolaHitt_POQ.pdf)

Data for Some, Values for Others: Individual Differences in Political Persuasion (with Matt Hitt)

Research shows that there exist important differences in citizens’ ability and motivation to select and process various types of information. We build on our previous work, showing that differences in numeracy have important implications for political persuasion and public opinion. We conducted an online experiment on a nationally representative sample of American respondents, exposing subjects to both quantitative information and verbal appeals to values. Our results showed that quantitative information exerts an independent effect on political attitudes among a subset of respondents, those high in numeracy. Such individuals did not use the value appeals, when adjusting the attitudes. Those low in numeracy, meanwhile, relied heavily on value appeals. While the results indicate a weak party cue effect overall, this effect was clearly stronger among lower numerates. Our results shed light on the limits of partisan influences on how people select and process political and policy information, while demonstrating the importance of numeric abilities and preferences for the study of public opinion and political behavior.

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