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So Crazy It Just Might Work, Voting Nudges Edition…

November 5th, 2012 · 3 Comments
Behavioral Econ

I got the following in my email inbox last night:

Jodi —

This is cool:

You can see exactly how many people named Jodi have already voted.

Take a look at that. Then share it with your friends so they can see how many people with their names have voted, too — and look up their polling place.

Bottom line: We need every Jodi — and everyone else, too — to make it out to the polls to support President Obama.

So help get the word out — and the vote:



Yohannes Abraham
Deputy National Political Director
Obama for America

(For the record, I get emails from both campaigns, mainly in hopes of finding things like this.) Now, I was a little annoyed that this lookup system was implemented via some sort of seemingly intrusive Facebook app, but my curiosity got the best of me nonetheless. As such, I now know that 8,209 people named Jodi have already voted. I don’t know how complete this record is, but I guess I’m a bit surprised that there are even 8,209 people named Jodi in the US. (I’m clearly not good at making estimates.)

If my strategy were to support the candidate that best incorporated behavioral economics into his campaign strategy, Barack Obama would clearly have my vote. Why? Because he presumably (though perhaps accidentally) took a lesson from noted “influence specialist” Robert Cialdini and his coauthors when deciding on this name-based voter participation strategy. In “A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels,” the researchers show that information about descriptive norms can be more persuasive than traditional reason-based appeals:

Two field experiments examined the effectiveness of signs requesting hotel guests’ participation in an environmental conservation program. Appeals employing descriptive norms (e.g., “the majority of guests reuse their towels”) proved superior to a traditional appeal widely used by hotels that focused solely on environmental protection. Moreover, normative appeals were most effective when describing group behavior that occurred in the setting that most closely matched individuals’ immediate situational circumstances (e.g., “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels”), which we refer to as provincial norms. Theoretical and practical implications for managing proenvironmental efforts are discussed.

I suppose this is the research equivalent of the “everyone else is doing it, man” concept that is often used for nefarious purposes. In this study, norms based on gender, being a guest at a particular hotel, being a “citizen,” and being a guest in a particular room of the hotel were tested, and the norm based on the concept of “75% of the people in room xxx reused their towels” was the strongest motivator. Given this, it’s worth thinking a bit about whether the name norm was the best choice of motivating statistic (though the campaign doesn’t really have a lot of options at its disposal, I suppose). While the towels paper tests the impact of contextual rather than personal identification with some reference population, it does provide the following insight into how people adhere to personal descriptive norms:

Several factors are known to influence the extent to which individuals will adhere to the descriptive norms of a given reference group (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004; Goldstein and
Cialdini, forthcoming). One important variable affecting the likelihood of norm adherence is the level of perceived similarity among others and a given individual (Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975; Moschis 1976). According to Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory, people often evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others—especially to others with whom they share similar personal characteristics. In line with this supposition, people are indeed more likely to follow the behaviors of others with similar features, including age (Murray et al. 1984), personality attributes (Carli, Ganley, and Pierce-Otay 1991), gender (White, Hogg, and Terry 2002), and attitudes (Suedfeld, Bochner, and Matas 1971).

Another well-established factor affecting norm adherence is the extent to which individuals identify with the reference group.

So how much do people identify with others that happen to share the same first name? We can consider the factors listed above as a starting point:

  • Gender: Given that the majority of first names are gender-specific, a reference group selected by first name is, in fact, usually a reference group selected by gender.
  • Age: Given that name popularity trends tend to change over time, there should be some approximate age correlation going on within the group selected by first name. (How many young Ethels do you know, for example?)
  • Attitudes: To the degree that both names and attitudes are cultural (either for ethnic or other reasons), a reference group selected on first name should be correlated with an individual’s attitudes to some degree.
  • Personality attributes: While Steve Levitt and Freakonomics make the case that names are indicators of certain personal attributes (mainly socioeconomic factors), they don’t say that names are directly indicative of personality traits, so the relationship between an individual and her name reference group is unclear as far as personality traits go.

Hey, 3 out of 4 isn’t bad, so I will declare this a definite win for applications of behavioral economics and a potential win for the Obama campaign.

Oh, and go and vote tomorrow if you haven’t already, you lazy bums. (When looking at the differences in candidate preferences between registered and likely voters, I can only conclude that Democrats are disproportionately sitting stoned on the couch eating Cheetos rather than going to vote.)

Tags: Behavioral Econ

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dave // Nov 6, 2012 at 1:21 am

    I’d expect different results from liberal and conservative respondents, since this is tied pretty close views on community and normative behavior.

  • 2 Patrick // Nov 6, 2012 at 8:36 am

    I imagine that since you haven’t had the opportunity to name offspring, you likely aren’t aware of the “Baby Name Voyager”. From it, you can see that the name Jodi peaked in the 70’s, where there were roughly 900 Jodi’s per 1MM births.
    As for Ethel, it peaked in the 1890’s, so there aren’t many old ones to know either!

  • 3 econgirl // Nov 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    @ Patrick: I can feel you doing some sort of Bayesian inference regarding my year of birth. 🙂

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