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Deservingness versus values in public opinion on welfare: The automaticity of the deservingness heuristic


Michael Bang Petersen, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Bartholins Alle 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark. Tel.: +45 89 42 54 26; Fax: +45 86 13 98 39; E-mail:


Public attitudes towards welfare policy are often explained by political values and perceptions of deservingness of welfare recipients. This article addresses how the impact of values and perceptions varies depending on the contextual information that citizens have available when forming welfare opinions. It is argued that whenever citizens face deservingness-relevant cues in public debate or the media, a psychological ‘deservingness heuristic’ is triggered prompting individuals spontaneously to think about welfare policy in terms of who deserves help. This is an automatic process, equally influential among the least and the most politically sophisticated. Moreover, when clear deservingness cues are present, the impact of values on opinions vanishes. These arguments are supported by data from two novel experimental studies embedded in separate nationwide opinion surveys. The findings revise conventional wisdom of how values and heuristics influence public opinion and have major implications for understanding dynamics in aggregate welfare opinion and attempts from political elites to manipulate public opinion.

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