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COVID-19, Performance information use, Survey experiment, Reference points
This paper uses the COVID-19 pandemic as an extreme case to test whether reference points affect how citizens use performance information on effectiveness, cost, and equality. Drawing on the evaluability hypothesis, the paper argues that citizens are more likely to make decisions based on performance information on equality and disregard performance information on effectiveness and costs when no reference points are available to aid interpretation. The paper uses a pre-registered between-subject conjoint survey experiment on 2,025 Danish citizens to test expectations. Respondents were randomly drawn to rate either one fictive government strategy to combat the Coronavirus—with no opportunity to compare performance information between strategies—or two strategies—with the opportunity to compare performance information between strategies. The strategies varied on effectiveness (mortality rate), costs (overall economic costs) and equality (distribution of the economic costs and access to testing). Results show that when respondents are presented with one strategy, only performance information on equality affects ratings. Strategies with lower fatality and lower economic costs are thus not rated higher than strategies with higher fatality and higher economic costs holding other factors constant. In contrast, when respondents are presented with two strategies, performance information on mortality rate and economic cost plays a significant role for citizens’ ratings. Even during a high-information high salience crisis such as COVID-19, citizens are thus more likely to make decisions based on performance information on equality than effectiveness and cost when no ‘yardstick’ is available. Results imply that performance information on effectiveness and cost risk being drown out by other information easier to interpret if not presented with relevant reference points.