Research Spotlight: Preference Change in Competitive Environments

Competition is ubiquitous in human society. If competition affects the endogenous formation of political preferences, then it should in turn affect individuals’ values and attitudes towards candidates and policies. Therefore, participating in a competitive environment (i.e. institutional and/or social factors that affect incentives and behavior) should have considerable implications for how individuals behave politically. Competition impacts social life dramatically, and may cause people who navigate competitive processes to be more willing to participate in politics. By this logic, institutional differences across environments should lead to differences in policy preferences and the level of political participation in democratic politics.

In this study, I provide empirical evidence for this line of reasoning with a set of experiments that directly demonstrate 1) how competitive environments create political values, 2) how competitive processes lead to preference change over policies, and 3) the extent to which altered preferences affect political behavior and policy outcomes.

My experimental design consists two experiments. Each experiment has the same basic structure: first, in the Task Stage, participants are assigned to work on a task in a competitive environment where, depending on the treatment assignment, competition may generate higher political status (the degree of leverage an individual holds over the election). Second, in the Voting Stage, after the political status assignment, participants take part in voting games used to study political preferences and voting behavior. I then look for the impact of random assignment to the competitive environment in the Task Stage on political behavior and election outcomes in the Voting Stage.

I am interested in how competition, using political status as the objective, affects voters’ preferences in the choice of distributive policies. I conduct this study in two Experiments: I and II. In Experiment I, I establish whether there are effects of competition on voting behavior and election outcomes. In Experiment II I identify whether the effects are caused by competition or alternative explanations.

The results of Experiment I show that competition for political status (hereafter, CPS) promotes political values and participation. When CPS is available in Experiment I, voters are significantly more likely to participate and vote for policies that are favorable to their group, and they assign significantly higher values to their political participation. I also find that, while CPS increases political participation, it is likely to make policy outcomes more favorable to the high-status minority group. I further provide evidence that alternative behavior theories do not explain the treatment effect of CPS. The results of Experiment II show that when individuals only endogenously form group identity but do not compete for political status, voters’ political preferences and policy outcomes are not different from the counterfactual in which group identity is exogenously assigned.

Source for featured image: https://coss.fsu.edu/polisci/faculty/kai-ou/

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