With everyone talking about the importance of “voter turnout,” how do you make sure potential voters make it to the polls?
Simple – make them figure out ahead of time how and when they’ll get there.
In social psychology, we often talk about the shockingly profound importance of channel factors — tiny, seemingly-insignificant details about the environment that can have remarkably huge effects on actual behavior. One of the most well-known demonstrations of channel factors occurred back in the 1960s, when Howard Leventhal and colleagues wanted to encourage Yale students to go to the student health center and get vaccinated against tetanus. Although most of the students responded favorably to the scare tactics used by the researchers and indicated interest in receiving the vaccines while they were in the lab for the study, only 3% of the students actually went to the health center and got the shot. However, one simple change managed to increase participation by a factor of nine, raising the participation rate to just over 25%. That change? Simply providing the students with a map of the campus (on which the health center was circled) and asking them to check their schedules to find a time when they would hypothetically be available to get the shot. Keep in mind that these were all college seniors; they presumably knew where the health center was by that time. They also all presumably knew how to check their schedules before the researchers told them to do so. That wasn’t the point. The point was that all it took to translate good intentions into healthy actions was the simple channel factor of making the action seem convenient and manageable. Once you see an easy route to the health center and are pushed towards noticing an open gap in your schedule, you become much more likely to actually make your way to the health center and get the vaccine.
Similarly, research on implementation intentions has demonstrated the utility of forming “If — Then” statements for goal-directed behavior. According to research on goal pursuit, intentions that specify the how, what, when, and where of enacting goals are much more successful at motivating actual behavior than simply setting the more general goal to do something. With this in mind, encouraging potential voters to form an “If — Then” implementation intention for Election Day (e.g. “If it’s my lunch hour, then I’ll head over to my polling place and cast my vote”) could help boost voter turnout as well.
With this research on channel factors and implementation intentions in mind, it’s easy to see some useful parallels for encouraging voter turnout.
- Most people have good intentions when it comes to voting. However, extending what we know about the importance of channel factors, you can do your part to greatly increase your friends’ and family’s likelihood of actually voting by encouraging them to think about where their polling places are, routes that they could take to get there, and convenient times that they could go vote during the day.
- Even when we set good intentions, our follow-through can often falter. To increase the likelihood that you and your loved ones will actually vote, try setting intentions that lay out how you will go about voting (like how you will get to the polling place and how you will fit voting into your schedule on Election Day), rather than setting more nebulous intentions to simply “vote” on the big day.
Tonight, this is my Facebook status, and I encourage you to post something similar. This way, you can use social psychology to encourage your Facebook friends to make their ways to the polls: “Think about when and where you’re going to vote tomorrow. Figure out where your polling place is, the best route to take to get there, and the best time during your day to go — make it like scheduling an appointment. And when that time comes tomorrow, make sure you go vote!”
Happy voting, everyone!
Leventhal, H., Singer, R., & Jones, S. (1965). Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon attitudes and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 20-29.
Leventhal, H. (1970). Findings and theory in the study of fear communications. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 119-186.
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.