July 18, 2011
Stanford researchers find that a simple change in phrasing can increase voter turnout
Psychologist Christopher Bryan says people are more likely to head to the polls if voting is represented as an expression of who you are, not just something you do.
By Adam Gorlick
"When voting is framed as an indication of the kind of person you are, it's likely to feel more meaningful. And you're more likely to do it," said postdoctoral psychology researcher Christopher Bryan.
Voting is a constitutional right, a civic duty and – perhaps most importantly – a way to change or maintain the political landscape.
But many people don't vote, even when the stakes are high. So Stanford psychologists have found a way to motivate them – by making them see voting as an expression of who they are.
In a paper slated for publication this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that people are 13 percent more likely to cast a ballot if a subtle change in the wording of a few questions makes them focus on themselves as a voter rather than thinking of voting as an Election Day task.
"Being a voter is seen as a way to be a good or valued person in our society," said Christopher Bryan, a postdoctoral psychology researcher and lead author of the paper. "And one of the core motivations in life is to feel like we're good and worthwhile. So when voting is framed as an indication of the kind of person you are, it's likely to feel more meaningful. And you’re more likely to do it."
Bryan, whose co-authors include Stanford psychologists Greg Walton and Carol Dweck and Harvard behavioral scientist Todd Rogers, found that a simple tweak in language to a few survey questions was all it took to increase voter turnout.
In two experiments involving about 300 people the day before New Jersey's 2009 gubernatorial election and California's 2008 general election, the researchers conducted online surveys of registered voters who shared their names and some other identifying information.
The prospective voters were divided into two groups and asked similar – but differently phrased – questions about their thoughts on voting. One group was asked questions like: "How important is it to you to be a voter?" while the other was asked: "How important is it to you to vote?"
Going through public records after Election Day, Bryan was able to figure out which of the participants in the experiment actually voted. The results showed that people whose surveys referred to "being a voter" were more likely to go to the polls than people whose surveys referred to "voting."
"It seems that in almost every election cycle, you hear about how winning and losing comes down to which side can get more of its supporters to the polls, especially in close contests," Bryan said.
So politicians and voter registration types take note: A subtle change in get-out-the-vote scripts can significantly increase turnout.