Carbon Offset or Carbon Tax? The Labels Influence People Differently Based on Political Affiliation

Quick: Are you more likely to buy chocolate labeled as “80-percent fat free” or “20-percent fat”? They’re exactly the same. But when University of Iowa researchers asked men and women to choose between the two, the ladies were more strongly influenced by the wording than the guys, and they chose the 80-percent fat free option far more frequently than the 20-percent fat option. While gender was a predictive factor in that experiment, a new study looks at how party affiliation—Democrat, Republican, Independent—affects Americans’ willingness to choose a product labeled “carbon tax” or “carbon offset.”

Columbia University researchers asked 898 people to choose between otherwise identical products, where one was cheaper and the other was more expensive and included a surcharge for carbon dioxide emissions. For example, the participants were told they select a roundtrip ticket from Los Angeles to New York City for $345, or opt for one that cost $352 and came with a carbon offset. Similarly, they were asked to choose between the $345 ticket and the $352 ticket with a carbon tax.

Self-described Democrats, Republicans, and Independents tended to select the more expensive, eco-friendly ticket if it was labeled as having a “carbon offset.” When the ticket carried a “carbon tax,” Democrats still chose the costlier item, but Republican and Independents were more likely to go for the cheaper option. The party lines held when participants were given similar scenarios involving buying gas or a computer, and choosing an electricity provider.

The findings have policy implications, write the authors, led by David Hardisty, in Psychological Science: “Policymakers (and those who advise them) would be wise to note the differential impact that policy labels may have on different groups. What might seem like a trivial semantic difference to one person can have a large impact on someone else.”

[photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas]

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”