In January of 2013, about a month after the horrific shootings of children in Newtown, Connecticut, the Pew Research Center released a survey of gun-related political leanings of people in America. They first asked the respondents to identify themselves as either gun rights proponents, or gun control proponents. They then asked the respondents questions about their political activity: did they contribute money to organizations that took a position on gun policy? Had they contacted a public official to express an opinion on gun policy? Had they signed a petition on gun policy? Etc. The results indicated that those who prioritized gun rights were 1.7 times more likely to have been politically active (i.e., participated in one or more of these activities) than those who prioritized gun control. Why should gun rights advocates be almost twice as likely to be politically active than gun control advocates?
To understand this behavior, it is useful to consider how the human brain makes choices when faced with gains and losses.
In 1990, Kahneman and colleagues performed an experiment in which they selected some participants and gave them a coffee mug as a gift. They then asked them to assign a minimum price on the mug that they were willing to sell it. These participants asked for about $7. They then took another group of participants and showed them the same mug and asked how much they would be willing to pay to own it. They responded around $3. Knetsch (1989) found that people who are given a chocolate bar want $1.83 to sell it, but will pay only $0.90 to buy it. The difference in the two prices is explained by loss aversion: the sellers evaluate the choice of giving up something that they already own by viewing it as a psychological loss. In order to compensate for that loss, they request a lot of money. Buyers, on the other hand, evaluate the choice as a psychological gain. They are willing to pay much less for the pleasure that they perceive in owning it.
In general, the pleasure that you feel if someone was to give you an item tends to be much less than the pain you feel if you were to own that item and were to lose it. This is called an endowment effect.
Carmon and Ariely (2000) explain this behavior by suggesting that when faced with loss of something (e.g., selling), people focus on their sentiment toward surrendering the item (and not the money that they are gaining), whereas when faced with gain of something (e.g., buying), people focus on their sentiment toward what they forgo (typically money, and not the item they are gaining).
Now let us consider the question of why gun rights proponents are more politically active than gun control proponents. The current political climate is one in which the President and the Congress are considering laws that would limit gun rights. This is viewed as a loss to gun rights proponents. In contrast, the same laws are viewed as a gain for gun control advocates.
The gun rights proponents (but not the gun control proponents) are under the influence of the endowment effect because if the proposed laws are enacted, it would result in a loss of what they already ‘own’. For them, the proposed laws carry a negative psychological value. If we could generalize from behavioral economics literature, we would speculate that this negative value is about twice as large as the positive psychological value that would be gained from the perspective of gun control proponents. This may be the reason why the gun rights proponents are about twice as likely to be politically active as the gun control proponents.
The deeper idea is that any change from the status quo will meet with much stronger resistance by those who view the change as a loss, as compared to the enthusiasm that it fosters in those who view the change as a gain.
Carmon, Z. and Ariely, D. (2000) Focusing on the forgone: How value can appear so different to buyers and sellers. Journal of Consumer Research 30:15-29.
Kahneman D., Knetsch J., and Thaler R. (1990) Experimental tests of the endowment effect and the coase theorem. Journal of Political Economy 98:1325-1348.
Knetsch J. (1989) The endowment effect and evidence for nonreversible indifference curves. American Economic Review 79:1277-1284.