Monday, December 14, 2020

Ethan Porter's "The Consumer Citizen"

Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He holds appointments in the School of Media and Public Affairs and the Political Science Department and is the Cluster Lead of the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at GW's Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Political Behavior, Political Communication and other journals. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other popular publications, and has received grant support from the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Omidyar Network. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago.

False Alarm: The Truth About Political Mistruths in the Trump Era, a book co-authored with Thomas J. Wood, was published in 2019.

Porter applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Consumer Citizen, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Consumer Citizen describes in detail the concept of “operational transparency.” As I write, scholars of consumer behavior have found that
...people are more likely to view a company favorably, and perhaps become even more likely to buy its products, if the company engages in operational transparency (e.g., Buell and Norton 2011). The premise of operational transparency is straightforward. To engage in it, all a company needs to do is illuminate the efforts that have gone into making a product. In other words, the company needs to visually shed light on its internal operations. Only when operations are made transparent can consumers appreciate the effort that goes into them—and by extension into the company’s products and services.
This test works reasonably well for The Consumer Citizen. While the book asks questions familiar to the political science literature, many of its answers come from research into consumer behavior. On page 99, I describe operational transparency, a concept mapped out by consumer behavior researchers. Later in the book, I show that a message which describes government in ways indebted to operational transparency can increase trust in government. However, because I don’t draw that connection out on page 99, the page in question only offers a snapshot of half the story: It details a concept important to consumer behavior, but does not explain how that concept can offer insight into trust in government. Nor does it hint at the broader connections between consumer and political behavior that motivate the entire book.

What, then, does operational transparency have to do with trust in government? As I explain in The Consumer Citizen, because many people are simply more familiar with consumer decisions than political ones, the habits and strategies they rely on as consumers come to shape their political behavior. One such habit is captured by operational transparency; as the evidence shows, consumers reward firms that display the effort they put into creating products.

In an experiment carried out with Professors Ryan Buell and Michael Norton--who published earlier canonical work on operational transparency--we investigated whether operational transparency could affect attitudes toward government. Prior work by Suzanne Mettler has made clear that people are largely unaware of many benefits that government provides (e.g., the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction). But as I show elsewhere in The Consumer Citizen, it’s not enough just to tell people about government benefits. Operational transparency suggests that, if you want knowledge of government benefits to change attitudes, you have to show them those benefits. With that in mind, our experiment randomly exposed some people to a 5-minute video, dubbed “Anytown,” that visualizes benefits that government provides. The Anytown video, in essence, applies the lessons of operational transparency in an attempt to make people more trusting of government.

It worked. The Anytown video had strong positive effects on multiple measures of trust in government. Participants who saw the video also came to have more positive views of government taxing and spending and were more likely to favor tax increases to support greater domestic spending. The naive expectation would be that just informing people about government benefits would increase trust in government. But that wouldn’t be right. Instead, it turns out that appealing to people in ways that echo their experiences as consumers--in this case, by meeting the standards of operational transparency--does the trick.

And that’s the broader lesson of The Consumer Citizen. Reaching out to citizens as consumer-citizens, in ways that acknowledge the supremacy of consumer decisions, can change a wide array of political outcomes, from trust in government to tax preferences, and even whether people sign up for the Affordable Care Act.
Visit Ethan Porter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue