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Does the presentation of information affect residents’ response to government communications?

Mailboxes with paper sticking out

Project Summary

The ability of government to perform its core functions depends, in part, on how well it communicates with residents. Often, this happens through writing. In a series of studies, we found that residents are more likely to engage with more formal government communications, especially when they have low trust in government. This “Formality Effect” directly contradicts experts’ predictions about what attributes increase the efficacy of government communications.

Why is this issue important?

Trust in government is at a near historic low, and there are significant gaps between what the government asks residents to do and residents’ observed behavior. Behavioral science has become very influential in designing and testing methods of increasing response to written communications by targeting barriers to action. But most behaviorally-informed strategies focus on adjusting language and content. Less is known about how the presentation of information may affect residents’ response to government communications.

What are we doing?

We conducted three online studies, an online prediction study, and three large-scale field experiments across different policy domains: take-up of the Earned Income Tax Credit, enrollment in a local government program, and self-certification of small businesses. In each field experiment, residents were randomly assigned to receive either a formal or informal version of a mailer. The main measured outcome related to whether the resident took the desired action. Online studies were used to develop a common definition of “formality,” understand mechanisms, and elicit experts’ predictions.

What have we learned?

Across six studies, we found that a “Formality Effect” exists in government communications. Contrary to experts’ predictions, formal government communications are more effective at influencing resident behavior than informal government communications. One possible reason for this is that formality operates as a heuristic for credibility and importance.

What comes next?

We have incorporated the findings from this project into other evaluations that center on government communications. Similarly, these findings can be used to inform the design of government communications across policy contexts.

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