On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court released a decision on Dobbs v. Jackson asserting that abortion is not a constitutional right, overturning the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas endorsed reconsidering other Court rulings which confirmed the right to use contraception (Griswold), the right to have sex with any consenting adult (Lawrence), and the right to same-sex marriage (Obergefell).
The Court’s decision launched protests and celebrations. Far from providing a resolution to one of America’s most polarizing issues, the decision has set off a wave of legal battles around the country. As the focus turns to these battles, a key question remains—how will Americans’ opinions toward abortion change as a result of the Supreme Court ruling?
We’ve spent the past few years trying to understand the social psychological impact of major Supreme Court decisions. In our research, we find that personal opinions don’t change in the wake of a Supreme Court decision, but perceptions of social norms do, sometimes dramatically. In other words, people’s personal views on an issue don’t typically shift, but their perception of other Americans’ views does.
We find that personal opinions don’t change in the wake of a Supreme Court decision, but perceptions of social norms do, sometimes dramatically.
Take, for example, Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that ruled same-sex couples were guaranteed the right to marry. Our research lab tracked public opinion on same-sex marriage within the same group of 1,063 people starting in March of 2015 and ending in late July, four weeks after the decision. Led by Margaret Tankard, we found that the opinions of the individuals in the study did not shift over the five month period around the decision. However, immediately following the decision we observed a sharp increase in perceptions of others’ support for gay marriage. The size of the increase in perceived support immediately after the Obergefell ruling was twice the size of the increase in personal support for same-sex marriage that occurred in the previous 15 years. This pattern of results emerged for both self-identified liberals and conservatives.
Why this shift in perception? Perhaps people’s perceptions of the norms changed because they saw SCOTUS as a knowledgeable and trustworthy institution, one that understood which way public opinion was shifting. However, it’s possible that they also observed the widespread celebrations of the decision and of the newly married couples. When the same-sex marriage decision was announced in June 2015, much of the country seemed to explode in rainbows. Celebrations and parades for Pride cheered the decision, and social media pages filled with pictures of joyful weddings in city halls. The White House was lit up in rainbow colors in recognition of the landmark decision. Our most recent work on the Dobbs decision is helping us to detangle these two explanations.
Unlike Obergefell, where perceptions of others’ views moved in the same direction as the Supreme Court decision, after the Dobbs leak, the perceptions of the number of Americans who support legalized abortion access moved in the opposite direction: they increased.
Over the past two years, led by Chelsey Clark, we have been tracking abortion opinion and norm perceptions within the same group of 3,000 individuals. When the Dobbs decision was leaked in May of 2022, the public learned Roe would likely be overturned. We surveyed our group of participants after the leak, and we again found that our participants’ personal opinions of abortion were unperturbed. But unlike Obergefell, where perceptions of others’ views moved in the same direction as the Supreme Court decision, after the Dobbs leak, the perceptions of the number of Americans who support legalized abortion access moved in the opposite direction: they increased. The size of the effect was half of the size of the norm change following Obergefell.
Why did norms shift in this way after the Dobbs leak? In this case, there was also an overwhelming public response. While some Americans celebrated, the leaked decision also sparked prominent protests, outraged posts on social media, and cable television coverage of a dissenting public. It’s likely the decision also sparked conversations with others about abortion, conversations that are typically rare given abortion stigma. Perceived norms shifted in a direction consistent with the outraged reaction—but against the direction of the leaked Supreme Court opinion. Thus, our Dobbs-leak findings suggest that our perceptions of norms may be more influenced by our observations of the public reaction to Supreme Court decisions than by the decision itself.
We are now tracking personal opinions and perceptions of norms following the release of the official Dobbs decision. Since the decision was consistent with the leaked draft, we might expect a similar increase in the perception that other Americans support legalized abortion, particularly given the size of the protests that erupted across the U.S. following the decision. This is perhaps a silver lining for the majority of Americans who support legalized access to abortion. Following Dobbs, more people realize that pro-choice is the majority opinion in the United States. Realizing that support for legalized abortion is common could embolden greater demonstrations of support, both socially and politically.
Disclosure: Betsy Levy Paluck is a member of the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Public Policy, which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as a 2021 Supporting Partner. Supporting Partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.