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Follow Up: From The I Told You So Department, Voting Nudges Edition…

November 13th, 2012 · 3 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Follow Ups

Hey, remember that time last week when I pointed out that Obama’s campaign emails had social science research written all over them?

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.

Turns out that the parenthetical speculation about the strategy being coincidental was probably not warranted, since Obama has a “dream team” of social scientists consulting to his campaign in various capacities:

Less well known is that the Obama campaign also had a panel of unpaid academic advisers. The group — which calls itself the “consortium of behavioral scientists,” or COBS — provided ideas on how to counter false rumors, like one that President Obama is a Muslim. It suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice on how to mobilize voters.

Advice such as “highlight a descriptive norm such as first name for people to identify with and then show that other members of the descriptive-norm-based reference group are undertaking the desired action, i.e. voting?” The article says that the campaign would neither confirm nor deny a relationship with the social scientists in question, but the influence is pretty clear, especially since Robert Cialdini, one of the researchers who conducted the descriptive-norm influence research, is listed among the members of the dream team:

In addition to Dr. Fox, the consortium included Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University; Samuel L. Popkin of the University of California, San Diego; Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University; Richard H. Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago’s business school; and Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia.

Apparently the name emails that I talked about before weren’t the only way in which Dr. Cialdini’s research was used:

Another technique some volunteers said they used was to inform supporters that others in their neighborhood were planning to vote. Again, recent research shows that this kind of message is much more likely to prompt people to vote than traditional campaign literature that emphasizes the negative — that many neighbors did not vote and thus lost an opportunity to make a difference.

This kind of approach trades on a human instinct to conform to social norms, psychologists say. In another well-known experiment, Dr. Cialdini and two colleagues tested how effective different messages were in getting hotel guests to reuse towels. The message “the majority of guests reuse their towels” prompted a 29 percent increase in reuse, compared with the usual message about helping the environment. The message “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” resulted in a 41 percent increase, he said.

The article concludes by noting that the researchers weren’t told how their ideas were put to use, so if anybody has Cialdini on speed dial, feel free to pass along the original post.

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Follow Ups

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