Facts vs Frames: A Field Experiment on Members of the European Parliament
The goal of this paper is to explain to what extent political elites pay attention and respond to empirical information more than other types of information. Up to date, various fields of research such as agenda-setting, interest groups or policy diffusion, suggest that empirical evidence is key to political elites and the policy-process. While much of these theories are based on individual-level human processes, most of the work is tested at the systemic level, with scarce evidence on how this works with individual political elites. For instance, much agenda-setting work relies on the individual human cognitive limitations that structure and limit attention to different issues, but empirical work focuses on analysing agenda-dynamics at the macro-level focusing on different venues such as media or parliamentary activity. Policy diffusion literature explains that one of the mechanisms of policy diffusion is policy learning among individual political elites: that is, policy-makers as individuals learn of the consequences of policy implementation elsewhere. Yet empirical work uses states as unit of analysis, and not policy-makers as individuals. The objective of this paper is to cover this gap through a field experiment that can causally assess the impact of information type on political elites’ attention and response to issues. We field this experiment on Members of the European Parliament (MEP), which was embedded in a real-life fundraising campaign taking place in April 2018. Using a real-life initiative provides a useful opportunity in elite experimentation as it does not over-charge political elites with survey and interview requests, while accumulating knowledge. In this case, we used a fundraising campaign organised by Unconditional Basic Income Europe (UBIE), which is an EU-level advocacy organisation working on promoting basic income discussion. Our treatments consisted of presenting basic income policy in two ways. In the evidence treatment, basic income was accompanied by the evidence and reports that exist in relation to this policy, with relevant wording, numbers and citations. In the idea treatment, the information regarding basic income was the same, but it was presented as a concept or notion, without the evidence, citations or figures. Results show that MEPs were significatively more attentive and responded more to general information rather than information containing evidence cues. Results also suggest that there are no important differences between political groups, and crucially, on being in favour or against a specific policy proposal. This is contrary to our theoretical expectations and previous work, and has important implications for the policy-process. Further research is necessary to analyse the mechanisms through which this pattern emerges, comparing for instance, across levels of interest, knowledge, issue area and saliency. We finalise by proposing new experimental designs that may address these issues.