Study shows voter turnout can be increased with simple word change

July 19, 2011 by Bob Yirka, report

( -- A new study by social psychologist Christopher Bryan and his colleagues at Stanford University shows just how easily people can be manipulated using their own vanity; by doing nothing more than changing the word "vote," to "voter," on a survey, Bryan et al, have demonstrated that it's possible to increase voter turnout in real-world elections. The team has published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To see if his hunch, that people would respond better to the opportunity to be called a , rather than simply asking them to , could improve , Bryan and his team first sent out surveys to just 38 people prior to the 2008 . Half the group got a survey asking if it was important to vote, the other half got surveys asking if it was important to be a voter. 87.5 responded yes to the second question while only 55.6 did so with the first.

Feeling he was on to something, Bryan then set his sights higher, for his next experiment, he and his team sent surveys to 133 registered voters in California one day before the 2008 election. Afterwards, using , he was able to ascertain that 82% of those who got the “vote” question actually voted, while 96% of the “voter” group did.

Then to make sure his results weren’t tainted by the fact that the recipients of the surveys were all quite young, and Californian, the team sent out surveys to 214 older registered voters from New Jersey just before their gubernatorial election, and found similar results; 90% for the “voter” group versus 79% for the “vote” group. Bryan says this is the largest ever measured effect on voter turnout.

Bryan suspects that the increase is due to how people view themselves, or maybe just how they want to; by wording a survey that allows a person to see themselves as a voter, vanity is struck because most people view being considered a voter, a positive thing; just asking people to vote on the other hand, sounds more like you’re asking them to do something, which in voter surveys doesn’t seem to stoke much of anything, except perhaps excuses in some people. That the survey was able to translate words into action appears to be due to the opportunity it affords the recipients to be being considered something so positive as a voter, a distinction they perhaps hadn’t quite fully considered prior to receiving the simple survey.

To see if the same sort of results can be had in other areas, Bryan and his team will next be looking at whether such word phrasing changes can be effective in helping people diet, or to work to save the environment, etc.

Explore further: How social pressure increases voter turnout: Evidence from a large-scale field experiment

More information: Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self, PNAS, Published online before print July 18, 2011, doi:10.1073/pnas.1103343108

Three randomized experiments found that subtle linguistic cues have the power to increase voting and related behavior. The phrasing of survey items was varied to frame voting either as the enactment of a personal identity (e.g., “being a voter”) or as simply a behavior (e.g., “voting”). As predicted, the personal-identity phrasing significantly increased interest in registering to vote (experiment 1) and, in two statewide elections in the United States, voter turnout as assessed by official state records (experiments 2 and 3). These results provide evidence that people are continually managing their self-concepts, seeking to assume or affirm valued personal identities. The results further demonstrate how this process can be channeled to motivate important socially relevant behavior.

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4.7 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2011
It would seem to me that the effect does tap into our view of ourselves. Someone can vote, and thats good, but its just an action that you can take. But a "voter" is someone who votes, probably repeatedly. This is a virtue, not simply an action. Just like you could day someone kicked a dog that was barking, sounds bad but not horrible. You could say that person is an animal abuser, and suddenly you want to lock them in jail. Positive labels have a strong effect, and it looks like they will be used more often to encourage behavior.
2.4 / 5 (5) Jul 19, 2011
The sample needs to be a lot larger than 200. I doubt that that is actually exceeding the error margin.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2011
The sample needs to be a lot larger than 200. I doubt that that is actually exceeding the error margin.

Not really.

On the other hand a larger sample size would certainly rule out any selection bias and reduce the error margin significantly.
3.5 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2011
Not really.

A typical poll is 500-1,000 people with 10-3% error. This number of participants is far too small to be usable accept anecdotally.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2011
Given that the two choices are awful and unspeakably awful and both have the same corporate puppet masters, I'm a non-voter.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2011
Technically, the two questions are the same, but it seems to me that people would tend to interpret them differently -- i.e. "Should you vote?" would be interpreted as "Is it right that you should vote?", whereas "Should you be a voter?" would tend to be interpreted as "Should you have the right to vote?", which are very different questions.
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2011
Given that the two choices are awful and unspeakably awful and both have the same corporate puppet masters, I'm a non-voter.

If you were to go to the polling station and spoil your ballot, I'd believe your reasons.

That said, there's no guarantee in life that any of your decision-points will have an option which is 'good'. Quite often (most often?) life is about choosing the path which is 'less bad'.

That may sound cynical to entitled ears, but it's reality. Taking ownership of your own life (even in such a small way, like voting among 150 million of your peers) is part of being a responsible adult.

It's little wonder that the A/B choice on the ballot is not attractive to many, they don't take part in selecting who goes on the ballot. If more disenfranchised people were to get involved in the political process (especially early in the process, say the Primaries in the US), then your choices on Nov 2nd would start to look a lot more appealing.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2011
Reliability of the survey depends on sample size and 'the spread". Large differences are significant in smaller samples. How large of a sample do you need to demonstrate there are male and female humans vs how large a sample you need to determine the exact ratio? In the first case, two. In the latter, several thousand.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 19, 2011
The sample sizes are far too small to yield significant results.

Another important question which has not been address is how were the 38, 133 and 214 people chosen?

The 38 and 133 samples seem to have been young Californians while the 214 were "older" people from New Jersey.

All three samples were from liberal states during elections in which the liberal turnout was unusually high.

The results certainly do not represent a random sampling and are too restricted to have statistical validity.

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