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Time magazine’s national debt cover story isn’t just misleading. It’s most likely ineffective too.

- April 22, 2016

Time Magazine just published a controversial cover story calling attention to the national debt. The story not only highlights the size of the debt ($13.9 trillion) but tries to personalize it: “Dear Reader: You owe $42,998.12.” This type of frame has been used many times to animate concern about the national debt.

There are two problems with this frame, however. The first is that it’s misleading. The second, which is our focus, is different: if the goal is to get people to pay attention, it’s likely ineffective.

This kind of frame seems intuitive. Surely connecting an issue to people’s personal circumstances—“Holy crap, I owe $43,000!”—should make them care more about the debt. Certainly relative few do: only 5 percent of respondents labeled the national debt the most important problem in a March 2016 Gallup poll. This is nothing new, of course. As the graph below shows, rarely do Americans give the budget or deficit top priority:

Graph by John Sides

Graph by John Sides

So why wouldn’t this cover work? Fundamentally, the cover is telling people about what seems like an unexpected expense—one that is roughly 80 percent of the median household income in 2014, which was $53,657.

When people are made to think about large, unexpected expenses, this actually makes it harder for them to focus on other topics — possibly even the debt itself. In experiments conducted by Anandi Mani and colleagues people were first asked to consider a scenario in which they faced a large unexpected expense or a small unexpected expense, and then given two tasks that measured how well they could focus on things beyond the financial concerns mentioned in the scenarios.

The scenario describing a small expense had little impact. But the scenario describing the large expense made it harder for people, and especially less wealthy people, to concentrate on the other tasks. This is what Mani and colleagues call “attentional capture”: making people think about scarcity captures their attention and thus reduces their ability to focus on other topics.

Although their study was not explicitly about the national debt, it closely parallels the Time magazine cover and suggests why the cover may backfire. Far from making people think about the national debt, highlighting how much they “owe” will only make them think about their own personal finances.

The Time cover is yet another example of a broader phenomenon: telling people how a large political problem might personally affect them can often undermine the very purpose such rhetoric is designed to achieve. Self-interest is often not the political motivator that intuition would suggest.

For instance, efforts to increase political activism in response to growing economic insecurity can backfire by reminding people about that very insecurity. In research by one of us (Levine), reminding college students about the cost of college textbooks made them less likely to donate to an organization dedicated to making textbooks more affordable.

Telling people how much of the national debt they allegedly “owe” may seem powerful, but it’s likely not a good strategy for turning Americans into deficit hawks.

Adam Seth Levine is Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University, and the author of American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.

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