Endorsing Help For Others That You Oppose For Yourself: Mind Perception Alters the Perceived Effectiveness of Paternalism

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Abstract

How people choose to help each other can be just as important as how much people help. Help can come through relatively paternalistic or agentic aid. Paternalistic aid, such as banning certain foods to encourage weight loss or donating food to alleviate poverty, restricts recipients’ choices compared with agentic aid, such as providing calorie counts or donating cash. Nine experiments demonstrate that how people choose to help depends partly on their beliefs about the recipient’s mental capacities. People perceive paternalistic aid to be more effective for those who seem less mentally capable (Experiments 1 and 2), and people therefore give more paternalistically when others are described as relatively incompetent (Experiment 3). Because people tend to believe that they are more mentally capable than are others, people also believe that paternalistic aid will be more effective for others than for oneself, effectively treating other adults more like children (Experiments 4a–5b). Experiencing a personal mental shortcoming—overeating on Thanksgiving—therefore increased the perceived effectiveness of paternalism for oneself, such that participants thought paternalistic antiobesity policies would be more effective when surveyed the day after Thanksgiving than the day before (Experiment 6). A final experiment demonstrates that the link between perceived effectiveness of aid and mental capacity is bidirectional: Those receiving paternalistic aid were perceived as less mentally capable than those receiving relatively agentic aid (Experiment 7). Beliefs about how best to help someone in need are affected by subtle inferences about the mind of the person in need.

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