How to make Ukrainians less vulnerable to populism?

In recent years, populist movements have become increasingly popular in the world. Ukraine is not an exception: our research shows that on average 84% of the population support populist policies, and 59% of the population not only support populist policies, but also consider them realistic. According to the study, are economically disadvantaged groups of the population (people with fewer opportunities for education, employment, etc.) are most likely to support populist policies. To a lesser extent, people who do not show critical thinking in daily life are also somewhat more likely to support populist policies. However, differences in populism support by age or region are not significant.

Our research shows that it is possible to reduce the level of populism support. We analyzed data from 2000 respondents from survey conducted by Kantar TNS, an international research company. The survey was commissioned by the Centre for Economic Strategy. Giving a person a choice between the two policies significantly reduces support of populism: on average from 84% to 54%. Appealing to a person’s personal benefit is especially effective.

On the other hand, we can see that support of populism is particularly robust in some matters, and no argument can substantially weaken it. An example of this is price controls: supporters of this policy are not able to overcome the arguments against it. In other cases, it is much easier to change the view of the respondents: most of them changed their minds regarding three of the eight populist policies. We also do not see significant differences between those whom we have succeeded in convincing and those who did not change their mind.

In order to successfully persuade Ukrainians not to support populism, we recommend:

  1. Pay special attention to disadvantaged groups. The state should improve the quality of education in villages, encourage employers to create more jobs in rural areas and the poorest regions and consider creating special programs designed to enhance opportunities for these groups. Such a policy will help not only these citizens, but also the country as a whole: the greater economic security of these groups will diminish support for the populism that harms country as a whole.
  • Offer alternatives to populism. Offering a choice between two policies, instead of simply asking about the impact of a particular policy on well-being, significantly reduces support of populism from an average of 84% to an average of 54%. Thus, when communicating the dangers of populism, it should be emphasized that there are alternative and more realistic ways of solving a particular problem.
  • The arguments must be adapted to each individual target audience. Arguments about the harms or benefits of a particular policy for a particular person work better than those that emphasize altruistic motivation or benefit to the country as a whole. Thus, when designing a communication strategy to promote useful policies or to reduce support of populist policies, it is important to identify different target audiences and develop different messages for each audience to emphasize the benefits for that particular audience.
  • In order to counteract populism in some issues, more resources need to be allocated than in others. We see that sometimes convincing people not to support populist policy, such as a state-guaranteed employment, is quite simple: in our survey, the vast majority of people changed their minds. At the same time, on other issues the view of the vast majority of Ukrainians has remained steadfast to rational arguments. For example, the vast majority of Ukrainians continued to support price controls, regardless of arguments.
  • Do not overuse emotional arguments – it doesn’t work if used excessively. Usually, when promoting a particular idea, politicians use emotionally colored rhetoric instead of rational arguments. However, our research shows that this does not always work: for example, in the case of lower gas tariffs, the use of the emotionally colored phrase “tariffs’ genocide” did not increase support for tariff reductions compared to the neutral phrase. In some cases, the use of rational facts and arguments may be more effective.
  • Develop critical thinking. People who exhibit a higher level of critical thinking in their daily lives are less likely to support populism in the economic policy. This makes sense: critical thinking helps to understand that the long-term effects of populist policies will be negative. In order to reduce support of populism the state should pay attention to the development of critical thinking since childhood, for example, by modifying the school curriculum, which would spend more time analyzing and thinking critically instead of memorizing facts, as well as applying the experience of other countries in conducting information campaigns.
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