Ash Catton

PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology Student

Majority Rules: The Role of Institutional Decisions on Intergroup Relations Around Moral Issues

June 20, 2019

In 2016, the United Kingdom held a binding national referendum to determine whether or not it should leave the European Union, with the option to leave winning majority support by a small margin (Wheeler, Seddon, & Morris, 2019). In the immediate aftermath, local media reported a reactionary wave of hate crimes against those perceived to be immigrants (Agerholm, 2016). In addition, there were immediate expressions of doubt over the legitimacy of the institutional result, with a petition to hold a second referendum reaching 2.5 million signatures in its first month (Watson, 2016).  More recently, the imposition of a blanket ban by the Alabama Senate on abortion procedures attracted widespread condemnation, including protests outside the senate building (Prasad, 2019). The role of decisive institutional outcomes led to the first of two questions which prompted the formation of the proposed study: Do institutional decisions increase negative attitudes between those groups on either side of a moral issue?

In addition, it is known that personal attitudes change over time. For instance, Pew Research Centre (2019) reported that support for same-sex marriage in the United States has doubled since 2004. While the authors of that report claim that most of this shift is due to generational change, they note that support has increased by 24% since 2001 among those born 1928-45, and by 19% among those born 1946-64. It is likely that this intra-group shift in personal attitudes is the result of normative social influence. In other words, the attitudinal norm for these cohorts has changed over time, prompting ingroup members to shift their attitudes accordingly. This is because complying with norms has been shown to reduce dissonance (Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 2016), particularly in those individuals whose personal attitudes on an issue are weak or ambivalent (Leippe & Eisenstadt, 1994). Collective norms are inferred by observing the behaviour of those in the social environment (Paluck & Shepherd, 2012). While intra-group norm change can be attributed to a shift in group norms, this does not tell us how norms begin to change over time. This led to the second research question: Do institutional outcomes have any role in attitude change over time? If so, there are at least two ways in which this may occur. Firstly, A decisive institutional outcome may permit a particular action to become normalised over time. For example, legalising homosexual marriage necessarily allows for such events to take place thereby increasing the frequency of exposure among the general public. Secondly, the decision itself could directly influence change in personal attitudes. For this direct effect to occur, however, several necessary conditions must be present.

Institutional decisions may be perceived as a signal for majority norms (Hooghe & Meeusen, 2013; Ofosu, Chambers, Chen, & Hehman, 2019; Tankard & Paluck, 2016). Despite this, the ability of an institution to convey normative information does not mean that it also possesses strong normative influence. For example, Tankard and Paluck (2017) found that institutional decisions had an effect on updating individual’s perceptions of social norms, but it had no effect on changing individual opinions within a six month period after the outcome. This may be due to perceptions around which groups an institution is perceived to represent. For instance, Ofosu et al. (2019) found that a Supreme Court ruling in favour of homosexual marriage increased both explicit and implicit measures of homophobic biases in citizens from states which had not already legalised homosexual marriage at the state level. Thus, institutional decisions are more likely to be accepted when they are perceived to represent the majority view of an individual’s in-group membership. In other words, a Supreme Court ruling may signal the majority norm among Americans but may be rejected by a Texan if it is not perceived to represent the norm in Texas. In support of this, it has been argued that institutional decisions may only accelerate the rate at which a society’s attitudes are already changing (Ofosu et al., 2019). However, while Tankard and Paluck (2017) did not find evidence for attitude change occurring six months after a decision, it is likely that lasting changes take longer to begin. For example, Smith (2016) found that support for abortion rose one year after an institutional decision which imposed restrictions against the procedure. This suggests that institutional decisions do act as a catalyst for attitude change.

Similarly, Tankard and Paluck (2017) found that institutional decisions may act as a signal of social norms when that institution has access to information about wider social opinions or is democratic in nature. Additionally, Clawson, Kegler, and Waltenburg (2001) found that a Supreme Court decision was perceived to be more legitimate than one made by a bureaucratic body such as a government department. Despite this, the authors note that the degree to which the Supreme Court was perceived as conferring legitimacy was moderated by attitudes towards particular groups the decisions may relate to. Specifically, attitudes towards a ruling about affirmative action were moderated by attitudes towards Blacks.

Consistent with this, Parker and Janoff-Bulman (2013) found that groups which form around moral issues pose a special case of the traditional in-/out-group paradigm. Where in-group affection is normally a necessary condition of group membership, moral groups may be equally characterised by a shared feeling of “out-group hate”. For example, the authors found that measures of group-based emotions differed depending on whether participants were evaluating an opposing sports group, or an opposing moral group. Specifically, feelings about the moral out-group generated greater negative feelings and levels of perceived threat than the non-moral out-group. Levels of out-group hate, and perceptions of threat are higher when the moral in-group is a minority. This may be because, in democratic institutions, the majority group hold the power to establish rules or norms for the entire group. Thus, the severity of out-group hate may be proportional to the size of the moral out-group.

 At present, two moral issues dominate political discourse in New Zealand: the legalisation of cannabis, and euthanasia. As part of the General Election in 2020, there will be a national referendum on the issue of cannabis legalisation where registered voters are invited to indicate their support for a change in legal status of the recreational use of the drug (Small, 2019). Beliefs around decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis court a majority support of 66%, and this figure increases each year (NZ Drug Foundation, 2018). Euthanasia is also a topical issue in New Zealand, as the End of Life Choice Bill is going through due process in parliament and is due to undergo the second of three possible readings before being passed (New Zealand Parliament, 2019). The legalisation of euthanasia is also supported by a majority of 74% (Horizon Research, 2019). These two issues present an opportunity to investigate the aftermath of institutional decisions on intergroup relations around controversial moral issues. 


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