Politicians Like Constituents Like Them

Chris Blattman links to this paper by Gwyneth McClendon, a Ph.D. student in political science at Princeton.  She writes:

In this paper, I discuss a field experiment in which 1294 South African local politicians were each contacted by a fictitious constituent, whose name signaled either co-ethnicity with the politician or out-group membership. The constituent raised a concern either about a public goods issue that is prioritized equally across South African ethnic groups or about one that is more ethnically divisive. I found that politicians of all ethnic groups were more likely to respond to co-ethnic constituents than to non-ethnic constituents (even when the non-ethnic constituents were co-partisans) and were much more likely to respond to a unifying issue than to a divisive issue. The paper concludes by discussing whether the findings provide an argument for descriptive representation.

A similar finding has emerged in American state legislatures.  From a paper by Daniel Butler and David Broockman that got some notice a little while back:

We use a field experiment to investigate whether race affects how responsive state legislators are to requests for help with registering to vote. In an email sent to each legislator, we randomized whether a putatively black or white alias was used and whether the email signaled the sender’s partisan preference. Overall, we find that putatively black requests receive fewer replies. We explore two potential explanations for this discrimination: strategic partisan behavior and the legislators’ own race. We find that the putatively black alias continues to be differentially treated even when the emails signal partisanship, indicating that strategic considerations cannot completely explain the observed differential treatment. Further analysis reveals that white legislators of both parties exhibit similar levels of discrimination against the black alias. Minority legislators do the opposite, responding more frequently to the black alias.

Blattman wonders about the ethics of this:

…targeting politicians experimentally is getting increasingly common, and there are clearly important things to learn, but what’s the basis for human subjects approval (and ethical research) in these kinds of experiments? There can’t be consent or it would negate the experiment. These are public figures, so do we get to forego consent?…I don’t see much issue with this specific paper [JMS: McClendon’s], but still, my gut tingles a bit with fictitious constituents.

For one critical view, see Karl Kurtz at The Thicket—the blog of the National Council of State Legislators:

I think of it more as treating legislators as lab rats: Performing an experiment by telling them a lie and then measuring how they respond. Ring a bell and see if they salivate.
It’s a little bit like the FBI creating a crime and then trying to ensnare public officials in it. Only the political scientists’ deception doesn’t have an FBI sting’s justification of uncovering corruption. The only saving grace is that this study reports only group behavior, not individual responses, so there’s no “gotcha.” There is, however, a profound disrespect for the work that legislators do, the enormous demands many of them work under, and the idea of public service.

I’m more sanguine than Kurtz.  All experiments involve deception.  Obviously, you can’t tell subjects in advance what the treatment is and expect the treatment to work.  I think the deception here was quite mild.  I also think legislators are fair game as subjects.  Answering a single letter or email doesn’t really detract from their busy lives.  Nor does it disrespect their work.  In fact, both of these experiments are profoundly respectful of the task of representing constituents.  The question is simply whether legislators do so fairly.  I think that’s a reasonable question to investigate in this fashion.


12 Responses to Politicians Like Constituents Like Them

  1. Mark B. August 24, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    Ethically, it would seem that the question is whether or not the deception harms the politicians. Given that politicians are generally encouraged to respond to constituents, it would seem hard to determine that the potential harm of this study was greater than the everyday experiences of the politician.

  2. Sebastian August 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    I don’t know, I feel more ambivalent. It’s a well done study and clearly well intenioned, but think back to the study where they did this with College professors – most people they contacted, including Andrew, where quite upset, and I think rightfully so.
    I’m not sure I agree the difference between politicians and professor is that big.
    I think the fact that Gwyneth is not actually a citizen of South Africa matters, too.

  3. Chris O'Keefe August 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Are these legislators themselves responding to “constituent” emails or their staffs? Do these studies tell us about the legislators or the people they hire? I suppose it’s likely that legislators probably hire people like them, but I wonder if the estimates are going to be biased because someone else is answering emails.

  4. Gwyneth M. August 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    Thank you for linking to the paper, and I hope the discussion continues. In response to Sebastian, the same issues of deception arise whether I am a citizen or not. Nevertheless, as I note in the paper, I consulted with South African researchers at South African institutions (including the University of Cape Town and the South African Institute of Race Relations) in advance both to get advice on the ethics of the design and to make sure that the research questions were important to them. This kind of consultation is not required by the IRB since the researchers were not formal collaborators, but perhaps it should be encouraged in the future. In response to Chris O’Keefe, Butler and Brookman have a short discussion of this issue, and I also discuss my approach to controlling for the ethnicity of the politicians’ personal assistants, for those who have them. Thanks again for the discussion!

  5. Matthew Beckmann August 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    The problem is that, unlike other sorts of experiments, this is not a one-shot deal. If political scientists develop a reputation for deceiving public officials, it will only make it harder to avail themselves to participating in our work.

    That may not disrupt experiments like the ones here, but speaking as someone whose book depended on getting access to senators’ offices, I worry greatly this trend will make it harder to find officials willing to less us “soak and poke” with them, much less ask them to divulge somewhat sensitive behavioral information.

  6. Andrew Gelman August 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    As I’ve written elsewhere, I think it’s only ethical to compensate the participants in such research. In this case, you can’t actually pay the legislators but you can give them a choice of charities to give a donation to. I do think it’s a bit abusive to run an experiment like this and not compensate the participants.

  7. Sebastian August 24, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Thanks Gwyneth for stopping by – in the meantime I’ve actually read your paper (well, skimmed the paper, read the ethical considerations). And you cover a lot of important points.
    I think being a citizen does change the legitimacy somewhat: while you’re still using deception, you’re acting in a double role, as a citizen and as a researcher and I’d argue the former gives you some additional legitimation to probe into public officials behavior. And as you recognize in one of your FN, the history of “Western” social science research also plays a role in what type of things a Western researcher could get away with.
    Out of curiosity – did you send follow up e-mails (or are you going to – seeing that this all happened rather recently) explaining the research?

    Anyway – I want to be clear that I think it’s a terrific paper, and I don’t think the ethical problems are a huge deal – I just think it’s worth thinking about them, especially (this, again, is something that I got from reading Andrew) as technical means make doing this type of research much, much cheaper and thus likely much more common in the future.

  8. Gwyneth M. August 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    Sebastian, thanks for your kind words about the paper. As I mentioned in a comment to Chris Blattman’s blog post, I would love to have a full discussion of whether one should debrief subjects in this kind of experiment or not. The original design for my experiment involved a full debriefing, but the IRB requested that it be removed. At the moment, it seems, we do not have adequate guidelines as to when debriefing should be conducted in field experiments.

  9. Scott Monje August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    There doesn’t seem to be much of an ethical issue if the experiment is done once. I wonder what happens if it becomes popular among academics, or if the academics are followed by pollsters and then political rivals (or, for that matter, if the latter do it without the inspiration of academics). Do legitimate constituent messages get crowded out? Do politicians become suspicious of all the queries coming in?

  10. Scott August 25, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Interestingly, in spite of all the doubts above, no one seems to have raised any legitimate concern as to how this might harm the subjects.

    • Mark B. August 25, 2011 at 10:00 pm #

      I suppose the issue of added time for a person who turns out to be a bogus constituent? I believe this was Andrew’s issue when he was an unaware participant of a similar experimental design.

  11. Chris September 8, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    Gwyneth, did you also apply for ethics clearance from a South African review board? I believe that it is required.