Public support for ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ public policies: Review of the evidence

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Sanchayan Banerjee
Manu Savani
Ganga Shreedhar


Policy instruments, Nudge, Public preferences, Policy tools


This article reviews the literature on public support for ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ policy instruments for behaviour change, and the factors that drive such preferences. Soft policies typically include ‘moral suasion’ and educational campaigns, and more recently behavioural public policy approaches like nudges. Hard policy instruments, such as laws and taxes, restrict choices and alter financial incentives. In contrast to the public support evidenced for hard policy instruments during COVID-19, prior academic literature pointed to support for softer policy instruments. We investigate and synthesise the evidence on when people prefer one type of policy instrument over another. Drawing on multi-disciplinary evidence, we identify perceived effectiveness, trust, personal experience and self-interest as important determinants of policy instrument preferences, along with broader factors including the choice and country context. We further identify various gaps in our understanding that informs and organise a future research agenda around three themes. Specifically, we propose new directions for research on what drives public support for hard versus soft behavioural public policies, highlighting the value of investigating the role of individual versus contextual factors (especially the role of behavioural biases); how preferences evolve over time; and whether and how preferences spillovers across different policy domains.

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