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Don’t Worry; Trust the Government – Why Citizen Engagement is Difficult

It’s a rather obvious observation that the modern world is complex and confusing. There is a lot that have major influences on our lives but we don’t know much about. Things like climate change, global poverty, Mideast peace, etc. When we feel ignorant about a subject that affects us personally, we do research to learn how to manage our retirement investments, pick a health plan, or prepare for having children. You would expect the same behavior with subjects that don’t have such a direct impact on us but recent research argues that we would rather trust the government than educate ourselves.

According to a set of studies by Steven Shepherd and Aaron C. Kay (2011), most people who confront a complex sociopolitical issue will depend on the government to handle the issue. This dependence develops into such an overwhelming trust of the government that people will actively ignore any information that challenges their trust. People will “psychologically outsource their issue to the government” rather than directly confront the issue.

“Not only are people motivated to avoid social issues when they feel issues are complex – thus maintaining their present level of unfamiliarity – but this effect appears strongest for those issues believed to be most urgent and serious. It is at times when change is most needed, therefore, that people may become the most likely to defend the status quo and agents of sociopolitical systems . . . the psychological processes that are instigated when issues are seen as both severe and complex may limit any criticism of the current system and its decision-making process. And, perhaps even more critically, they may also prevent the types of behaviors, such as information gathering, that are necessary to efficacious social action” (Shepherd and Kay, 2011, pp. 12-13).

Not everyone acts this way. As Shepherd and Kay (2011) admit, we don’t know the specific personality traits that lead one person to avoid learning more about the issues while another person is so motivated they become an activist. Shepherd and Kay suggest that the need for order, justice, and certainty may lead to greater dependence and trust of the government but further research is needed (p. 13).

This research has major implications for government efforts to communicate with and engage citizens. Just providing information is not enough and, in fact, can be greatly counterproductive. So is trying to persuade citizens how important it is to take action. This may explain the difficulty of persuading citizens as evidenced by numerous public information campaigns. How can government communicators and other civil servants who directly provide services to the public best communicate their messages so that citizens will learn and take action?

The first step is to find ways to explain an issue in simple understandable terms. Communicators should also explain how the issue directly affects the citizen but not in catastrophic, doomsday language. Second, link the issue directly to the citizen’s “lay theories” of how to affect change. People have ideas on how their individual actions can cause change in their immediate lives but may feel that they don’t have the power to affect change on a more global scale. The communicator needs to demonstrate how the citizen’s individual actions can have impact on the issue in question. This is basically demonstrating how thinking globally and acting locally will successfully address the seemingly overwhelming issue.

This is fascinating research and clearly more experiments need to be performed to fully establish the process of psychological outsourcing to the government and the kind of people who are most prone to this process. Even so, Shepherd and Kay’s (2011) research does reinforce some well-known communication truths. Know your audience and tailor your message to their level of understanding. Explain why the message is personally important to your audience and give them a clear plan of action that they can personally fulfill. It is not the quantity of information but the quality of the engagement that determines the success of government communications.

Shepherd, S., & Kay, A. C. (2011, November 7). On the perpetuation of ignorance: System dependence, system justification, and the motivated avoidance of sociopolitical information. Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1037/a0026272.

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Peter Sperry

“How can government communicators and other civil servants who directly provide services to the public best communicate their messages so that citizens will learn and take action?”

First — Do not approach the task with a “How do I get the citizens to agree with my predetermined decision in such a way that they will take the action I have already decided they should take.” Citizens see through these types of “public information” (propoganda) campaigns fairly quickly and tune them out on a regular basis. If you want to engage the public, be prepared to actually listen to them and accept their input. This may even mean going along with decisions you think are dead wrong but the public support. If you are not ready for this dynamic, you can try implementing your policy without public input. It may be a second best alternative but at least it does not insult the public’s intelligence with a phoney outreach campaign.

Ray Lewis

Thank you for sharing; it helps explain the need for lifelong learners to also become teachers. I hope they also address the underlying public mistrust of government, both as information resources and the ability to act on behalf of the common good.

I saw a review of “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” which I’m adding to the 2012 reading list. http://shawnotto.com/foolmetwice/

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Ray – Thank you! The researchers initially concentrated on Canadians who seem to have more trust of their government. In later studies, the researchers did include Americans. You are right that part of the study should have included an initial measurement of trust in the government. I am hoping that more researchers take up this theory and explore it further.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Peter – I see your point and I agree with you partially but I wonder how Civil Rights would have been advanced if we stuck with the public’s majority opinion at that time?