Do the Right Thing: Social Norming to Get Out the Vote

Dec 07

Did peer pressure have anything to do with your decision to vote in the 2012 Presidential election? If you answered yes, that may be due to the engagement of behavioral scientists, who are becoming increasingly important advisors to political campaigns. That’s a key take away from this November 12 New York Times story, which describes some interesting tactics used by volunteers striving to boost voter participation in swing states. Many put the social norming theory into practice by subtly reminding folks that voting is the “right thing to do,” and encouraging them to follow through on a pledge to do so.

After reading the article, I corresponded with Craig R. Fox from the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles to explore how some of the practices we employ in social marketing can be utilized in get-out-the-vote efforts. He was kind enough to share “Rethinking Why People Vote,” a chapter he wrote in partnership with Todd Rogers of Harvard university and Alan Gerber from Yale University for the book, The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy, which will be published this month by Princeton University Press.

Here are a few interesting lessons from the research. While they’re specifically focused on voter mobilization, many can also apply to other social marketing efforts:

Don’t look me in the eye and tell me you’re staying home on election day. The authors of “Rethinking Why People Vote” cite significant research documenting the impact of face-to-face conversations on voter turnout. In several cases the percentage of people who voted after they talked with volunteers who went door-to-door was much higher than those who were contacted through less personal modes, such as paid phone banks and paid direct mail. Interestingly, this result proved to be consistent in both municipal and federal elections, and in efforts that targeted specific populations, including young adults, Latinos and African-Americans.

The authors also refer to the work of in battleground states during the 2004 presidential election. MoveOn enlisted volunteers who were “embedded in neighborhood social networks” to encourage their neighbors to vote, which led to a 9 percentage point increase in voter turnout compared to precincts that weren’t canvassed in this way. The authors suggest that folks who are local and familiar to citizens are better able to deliver messages in personal and compelling ways, which may make these conversations more convincing – a principle that calls to mind the work of promotoras, who make personal, cultural connections that lead people in Spanish-speaking communities to make smart health decisions.

Being chatty and personable will help me convince you. While phone banks may be second-best for mobilizing voters, the authors cite research that certain types of phone calls are more effective than others. Calls that are unhurried and conversational have a better result than rushed, impersonal calls. Also effective: following up with people who indicated on a first call that they intended to vote to see if they’re still on track to do so. As noted by the authors, being able to reference details of the first call makes the approach even more personal and “leverages the behavioral tool of self-prediction and commitment.”

If you make a pledge, you’ll probably follow through. The New York Times story also notes that door-to-door canvassers for the Obama campaign asked people to sign a card, with the President’s photo on it, as a pledge to vote. In “Rethinking Why People Vote,” Fox, Rogers and Gerber discuss the practice of self-prediction and commitment and studies that have “found that people are more likely to follow through on a behavior after they have predicted that they will do so.” This is a good reason to think about the value of “pledges” and other forms of written commitment as tools for behavior change in social marketing campaigns.

That pledge will be even better if you make a plan to keep it. In the weeks leading up to the election there were numerous media stories about challenges that people could face when it came time to vote. From abbreviated hours for “early voting” before election day, to stepped-up efforts to verify voter eligibility, to concerns that crowded polling places could jeopardize the ability of hourly workers to take enough time off of their jobs to vote, many of these concerns undoubtedly impacted lower income citizens more than others. Encouraging people to think in advance about how they might surmount these challenges might have also helped get more of them to the polls. Evidently the Obama campaign took this to heart – as noted in the New York Times story, some citizens received emails from the campaign that stated, “People do things when they make plans to do them; what’s your plan? ”

Be part of the in-crowd. The authors also cite research that supports the idea of voting as a social expression and note “people are strongly motivated to maintain feelings of belonging with others and to affiliate with others.” With this in mind they suggest that voter turnout can be enhanced by encouraging people to travel to the polls as part of a group and holding or attending election night parties. Great ideas for everyone who believes – like I do – that voting is an individual action that’s vital for the greater good.

Learn more about the interesting work of Dr. Fox and his colleagues here. And if you have other thoughts about the potential impact of social marketing and behavioral science on political campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts, feel free to share them with us here at the Social Marketing Exchange.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 7th, 2012 at 6:54 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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