Identity, threat aversion, and civil servants' policy preferences: Evidence from the European Parliament

AuthorBenny Geys,Bruno Heyndels,Colin R. Kuehnhanss,Zuzana Murdoch
Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Identity, threat aversion, and civil servants' policy
preferences: Evidence from the European
Colin R. Kuehnhanss
| Zuzana Murdoch
| Benny Geys
Bruno Heyndels
Department of Applied Economics, Vrije
Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
Department of Political Science and
Management, University of Agder, Norway
Department of Economics, Norwegian
Business School (BI), Norway
Colin R. Kuehnhanss, Department of Applied
Economics, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan
2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium.
Funding information
Research Foundation Flanders (FWO): PhD
Fellowship (Colin R Kuehnhanss), Grant/Award
number: G.0022.12 (Benny Geys).
Distinct policy options are typically characterized by a number of
advantages (or opportunities) and disadvantages (or threats). The
preference for one option over another depends on how individuals
within an organization perceive these opportunities and threats. In
this article, we argue that individuals' identification with an organi-
zation's core aims and objectives constitutes a key determinant of
this perception. We propose that stronger identification shifts indi-
viduals' attention towards potential threats rather than opportu-
nities in the payoff distribution, encouraging avoidance of negative
outcomes. Moreover, we argue that this prevention focusin indivi-
duals' motivational basis will be stronger under negative than under
positive selection strategies. An original survey experiment with
civil servants in the European Parliament finds significant evidence
supporting the empirical implications of our argument.
The advantages and disadvantages of distinct policy options generally become the subject of extensive deliberation
and negotiation in both the private and the public sector. The outcome of such negotiations and the implementation
of the ensuing decisions determine the success or failure of an organization. While the advantages of a given policy
option can be viewed as opportunitiesto reach favourable outcomes (e.g., high profit in the private sector, attain-
ing educational or social welfare targets in the public or non-profit sector, etc.), the disadvantages can be perceived
as possible threatsto the organization and its goals. A large literature has highlighted the role of such threat and
opportunity perceptions in a variety of contexts (Jackson and Dutton 1988; and references therein). Yet, a critical
subsequent question has received much less attention: What makes someone more or less likely to focus on either
opportunities or threats in distinct policy proposals?
Identifying the drivers of such opportunity-vs.-threat
Partial exceptions include Mohammed and Billings (2002) and Xie and Wang (2003), who highlight the importance of individuals'
self-efficacy beliefs, and the balance between achievement and avoidance motivation, respectively.
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12348
Public Administration. 2017;95:10091025. © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 1009
perceptions is critical to our understanding of the policy preferences of political actors, and lies at the heart of our
We specifically focus on the role of individuals' identification with, and dedication to, an organization's core
aims and objectiveswhich constitutes a central element of organizational identification (Hall et al. 1970; Ashforth
and Mael 1989; Scott and Lane 2000). Individuals' organizational identification has been linked to outcomes includ-
ing job satisfaction, individual well-being, and risk preferences. Building on motivation theory (Atkinson 1957; Atkin-
son et al. 1960; Lopes 1984, 1987) and Prospect Theory (Kahneman and Tversky 1979), we argue that a stronger
identification of individuals with their organization's goals also strengthens their motivation to avoid a policy failure.
It particularly generates a prevention focus, and shifts individuals' relative attention towards potential threats
rather than opportunities in the pay-off distribution. Thus, it shifts preferences towards options avoiding negative
outcomes during policy decisions. This has, to the best of our knowledge, not previously been tested, and constitu-
tes the first central novelty of this article.
The second contribution lies in assessing the role of the choice framework as a potential moderator of this shift.
We maintain that an identification-driven shift in focal point towards threat avoidance is likely to arise predomi-
nantly for individuals whose (externally imposed) selection strategy consists of rejecting a least preferred option
rather than choosing a preferred option. Evidence shows that a decision-maker's commitment to a selected option is
at least partially dependent on the characteristics of the selection strategy used; that is, on choosing or rejecting
options (Shafir 1993; Ganzach 1995; Meloy and Russo 2004). Positive selection strategies require an individual to
make a firm commitment to one option, whereas negative strategies merely invite the acceptance of the least-bad
option (Ganzach 1995). When faced with distinct policy options, we argue that any inherent lack of commitment
within different selection strategies can be compensated at least in part by individuals' identification with an organi-
zation's core aims and objectives. The additional prevention focusthat a stronger identification generates thus is
likely to matter most under negative selection strategies, where individuals' commitment to their preferred alterna-
tive is lower.
Our empirical analysis of these theoret ical propositions is based on an online su rvey experiment among civil
servants within the European Parliament (i.e., Administratorsresponsible fo r information preparation and dis-
semination; N= 69). Such data obtained from public officials rather than students substantially benef it the exter-
nal validity of our study (Druckman and Ka m 2011; Cappelen et al. 2015; Grimmeli khuijsen et al. 2017).
Furthermore, the European Parliament's admi nistration constitutes a particularly int eresting setting for two rea-
sons. First, these officials play an impo rtant role in the internal decision-ma king process within the European
Parliament (Neunreither 2002; Neuhold an d Radulova 2006; Winzen 2011; Neuhold and Dobbel s 2015). Much
like Administrators in the European Commiss ion, they have the ability to influence pol icy decisions through the
exploitation of bureaucratic discreti on (Pollack 2003; Olsen 2006; Schafer 2014) and by providing substantive
guidance and support to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) an d other stakeholders (Egeberg
et al. 2013). This makes them of central rele vance to our study. Second, the European Parl iament's staff is sub-
ject to a regular rotational system, which makes it difficult for them to develop vested interests in certain pol icy
areas or strong (and potentially proble matic) personal ties with the stakehold ers involved. Any political bias that
could be expected from, for instance, pol iticians (such as MEPs) is thus likely to be largely absent among our
We present our respondents with hypothe tical, but realistic, policy scenarios , and provide two possible pol-
icy options under each scenario. The options are manipulated to reflect different valences, whereby one opt ion
presents simultaneously more threats and opportunities than the other (for a similar approa ch, see Shafir 1993;
Ganzach 1995; Meloy and Russo 2004). Pa rticipants express their preference s for one option in each scenario
under either a positive or a negative selection f ramework. In the former, they choose their prefer red option
(henceforth choice frame), whereas they reject their least favourite option in the negative framework (hence-
forth reject frame). We analyse how the sele ctions depend on respondents' level of iden tification with organiza-
tional goals.

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