Cognitive Dissonance and Congestion Pricing

Reading this bit of the Janette Sadik-Khan profile in the American Prospect, which contained a line that, intentionally or not, described a certain inevitability towards congestion pricing…

“…Sadik-Khan sees the initial rejection of congestion pricing as an opportunity. “You know, no big idea happens in New York the first time around,” she says. “It is almost a benefit that congestion pricing didn’t pass, because now we are able to get all these pieces in place prior to the start of pricing…”

…had me in mind of a paper I had recently read, “Reactance or acceptance? Reactions towards the introduction of road pricing,” by Jens Schade & Markus Bauma, at the Technische Universität Dresden, Traffic and Transportation Psychology, in Dresden, Germany; the paper was submitted to the journal Transportation Research.

The researchers wanted to know, in light of the fact that road pricing schemes to date have been implemented without majority support ahead of time: “How will persons and in particular concerned car drivers react to the (planned) introduction of road pricing? Either, will persons respond with even stronger negative attitudes, rejection or reactance towards such proposals or will they adapt to the new situation and develop actually more positive attitudes because they have to accept the inevitable?”

They pointed to the case of Oslo: “In the year before the implementation of the Oslo toll ring, 70% of the city’s population were negative towards the toll ring. When the system had been operative for one year this opposition had been reduced to 64 %. In 1998 this figure was 54 %. The share being very negative has decreased from 40 to 17 % during the same period. The share being positive to the toll system has steadily increased during the period, from 30% before the toll system opened to 46 % in 1998.”

The answer could be, of course, that residents were seeing a benefit from the plan, and hence the opposition had dropped. But they wondered if there were other psychological mechanisms at work, so they conducted a series of interviews with German drivers, in which they varied, in their questions, the seeming likelihood of congestion pricing being approved. They found that drivers were less likely to oppose pricing the more imminent its adoption seemed. “In addition,” they wrote, “they perceive only weak social norms against the toll and they state lower negative emotions like anger.” The drivers were, the researchers suggested, trying to reduce their levels of cognitive dissonance: “Dissonance theory postulates that when there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviours (dissonance), people are motivated to reduce or to eliminate the dissonance because these inconsistencies cause discomfort.”

As an aside, I had the sense something similar was happening in the last weeks of the presidential campaign. As the Obama victory began to seem more and more inevitable, people who may have been firmly opposed or undecided suddenly shifted positions, either to match their attitudes with a seeming majority or because they did not want to seem left behind in some process of historical transformation (even in liberal Brooklyn I felt like I only really began to see a proliferation of Obama bumper stickers in the last weeks, or even after, the election).

I’m not sure how this finding can be applied in any meaningful way to policy; some polls, of course, have found that a majority of New Yorkers already support pricing.

This entry was posted on Monday, November 24th, 2008 at 4:05 pm and is filed under Cars, Cities, Congestion, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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November 2008

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