Policy and Blame Attribution: Citizens’ Preferences, Policy Reputations, and Policy Surprises

  • Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan
  • Reimut Zohlnhöfer
Original Paper


Negativity bias suggests that the attribution of blame to governments, for alleged or actual policy failures, is disproportionately pertinent for their popularity. However, when citizens attribute blame for adverse consequences of a policy, does it make a difference which policy was it, and who was the political agent that adopted the policy? We posit that the level of blame citizens attribute to political agents for policy failures depends on three policy-oriented considerations: (1) the distance between a citizen’s ideal policy and the agent’s established policy position; (2) the distance between a citizen’s ideal policy and the agent’s concrete policy choice; and (3) the distance between the agent’s established policy position and her concrete policy choice. The inherent relationship between these three policy-oriented considerations renders their integration in one model a theoretical and methodological imperative. The model provides novel observable predictions regarding the conditions under which each of the three policy-oriented factors will produce either pronounced or subtle observable effects on blame attribution. We test the model’s predictions in two survey experiments, in Israel and in Germany. The results of both experiments are highly consistent with the model’s predictions. These finding offer an important contribution by specifying the ways in which individual-level preferences interact with politicians’ policy reputations and policy choices to shape blame attribution. Our model entails unintuitive revisions to several strands of the literature, and in the “Discussion” section we provide tentative support for the applicability of this model to other political judgments beyond blame attribution.


Blame attribution Policy preferences Policy reputation Policy surprise Nixon goes to China Experiment 



The authors are grateful to Michael Bechtel, Brian Burgoon, Gail Gilboa-Freedman, Guy Grossman, Bernhard Kittel, Dan Miodownik, Mattan Sharkansky, Rune Slothuus, Florian Stoeckel, Pieter Vanhuysse, Barbara Vis, Omer Yair, seminar participants at the University of Amsterdam, Ben-Gurion University, The European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, The Hebrew University, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and at the 2014 MPSA and ECPR conferences, for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. Funding of part of this project by the University of Heidelberg’s Frontier Research Fund is gratefully acknowledged. . Replication files are available at Political Behavior’s Dataverse page:

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 215 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political Science Department, Federmann School of Public PolicyThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael
  2. 2.Institut für Politische WissenschaftRuprecht-Karls-Universität HeidelbergHeidelbergGermany

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