Monday, July 16, 2012
Can Science Plant Brain Seeds That Make You Vote?
In 2008, just a few days before the Democratic presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, a large group of Pennsylvania voters got a very unusual phone call.
It was one of those get-out-the-vote reminder calls that people get every election cycle, but in addition to the bland exhortations about the importance of the election, potential voters were asked a series of carefully constructed questions:
"What do you think you'll be doing before you head to the polls on Tuesday?" recipients of the call were asked. "Where do you think you'll be coming from that day?"
These questions were designed by a Harvard professor named Todd Rogers. Rogers, among other things, is a behavioral psychologist, and he says he chose those questions for a very particular reason.
"We borrowed that from cognitive psychology," he says, "There's a lot of research showing that thinking through the actual moment when you will do something makes it more likely that the behavior will pop into your mind at the appropriate time."
Essentially, the questions plant a cognitive seed deep in your brain that sits there, mostly forgotten, until you arrive at the moment you talked about during the call. And then, says Rogers, "It pops into my head! 'Oh! I said I was going to vote now!' "
Or anyway, that was the theory of what would happen, the theory that Rogers wanted to test with the calls. And to make sure this theory worked in real life, Rogers did something that hasn't been done much in politics: a randomized controlled trial. He randomly divided the electorate in Pennsylvania into different groups: Thousands got the call with questions, thousands got a standard get-out-the-vote call without questions, and thousands got no call at all.
What he found was that the questions appeared to make a dramatic difference. People asked three simple planning questions were twice as likely to vote as people who were not.
" I was very pleasantly surprised by how effective it appeared to be," Rogers says.
Until recently, there have been very few randomized controlled trials like this in American politics. Politics has been a profession ruled by gut instinct, gurus and polls. But over the past 15 years, the primary method of scientific advance — the randomized controlled study — has been wheedling its way into politics, and bit by bit, it's challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom that dominates current political campaigns.
Political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber wondered which campaign strategies would increase voter turnout — and perhaps more important, how much each of these strategies would cost.