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.