Subtle word change affects election participation

A subtle word change to refer to the self on a pre-election survey seems to significantly boost the number of voters in national elections.

A new study led by psychologist Christopher Bryan and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated how the sense of self motivates the public act of voting.

The authors point out that in terms of individual self-interest, voting is irrational. Just the probability of being killed in a car accident on the way to the polls far outweighs the likelihood that the average American’s vote will influence the outcome of most elections.

But from a public point of view, voting is essential for a functioning democracy, so the study tested the hypothesis that doing something positive for the community might motivate people by giving a potential boost to our self-image.

To do this, the researchers ran three experiments where they asked potential voters to complete an internet survey asking about the upcoming elections.

Importantly, half the people got a survey that referred to the act of voting while the other half got an identical survey but where the questions were worded to refer to them as a voter, directly implicating their self-identity.

For example, one version of a question would use a verb to refer to voting as an act (“How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”) while another would use a noun to directly implicate the respondent (“How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?”)

Directly after the survey, respondents in the self-implicating condition said they were much interested in voting in the upcoming election than those who completed the ‘voting as act’ survey, suggesting that the self-focused wording boosted enthusiasm.

Crucially, the effect also transferred into actions as another study looked at public voting records and found that those who had completed the self-focused survey were actually more likely to vote than those who had completed the action-focused survey.

Finally, the researchers ran the same study using a survey company to randomly select a nationally representative sample of people. These respondents were also more likely to vote if they completed the self-focused ‘election survey’.

Studies that attempt to influence behaviour often find effects that are ‘small but reliable’.

In contrast, the authors note that the effects of the simple word change “are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout” – increasing actual turnout by more than 10%.

The researchers suggest that the effect is not solely about make the questions more self-relevant, but more strongly linking the self to a concept generally regarded as positive – voting.

This means the perception of the concept itself is also key and the effect might be reversed if the wording change referred to something generally regarded as negative – for example, a criminal act.
 

Link to open-access study in PNAS.

8 Comments

  1. Pangolin
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    The pretense that people have some penultimate “free will” function loses ground every day.

    We’re a bundle of language cues and mangled social programs that can be manipulated in predictable ways. Even the people that rebel are predictable when larger numbers are taken into account.

    No wonder we call clothing “brands.”

  2. Emmy
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    It would be great if they could conduct the same experiment and determine if the participants *actually* voted in the next election, but I suppose that kind of information is kept strictly private (for good reason – but I still wonder if it translates to real action).

    • Chris
      Posted July 23, 2011 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      The measure of voting was official state records (not kept strictly private–although they don’t reveal how a person voted only whether they did) so, yes, it translates into real action.

    • Matt D
      Posted July 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      “Crucially, the effect also transferred into actions as another study looked at public voting records and found that those who had completed the self-focused survey were actually more likely to vote than those who had completed the action-focused survey.”

  3. Posted July 23, 2011 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    The argument begs the question- what “good” is higher voter participation?

    Assuming such is deemed “good” in an economic sense- what is the casual mechanism? As first stab, higher voluntary voting participation rates might be symptomatic of an “aware” economy. Believing one can have an effect might be an almost-necessity to actually having one.

  4. Gene
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    “”voting is essential for a functioning democracy”

    Indeed, voting is important…it keeps the illusion of democracy working. And as long as the illusion is in place, the “democracy” can remain “functional”.

  5. hfud
    Posted July 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    good

  6. hfud
    Posted July 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    No wonder we call clothing “brands.”


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