Tag Archives: Election

Did you vote? Wear your sticker! Update your status! Send all the tweets!

Many polls are still open, meaning it’s not too late to encourage your friends and family to get out and rock the vote!
Yesterday I mentioned that using channel factors to make voting seem easy and convenient can increase voter turnout.
Know what else can? Norms! Especially when you use the right kinds of norms.
There are two types of norms – descriptive and prescriptive. Prescriptive norms are what society says you should do (like telling your friends that they should vote, or that voting is the “right thing” to do). Descriptive norms, on the other hand, simply describe what people actually do, like merely saying that the majority of people that you know have voted. 
As it turns out, people are remarkably sensitive to descriptive norms – sometimes even moreso than norms that try to provide moral or societal guidance. Simply telling people what other people actually do, even without explicitly saying that the target person should do that thing as well, can be a surprisingly strong motivator.
Take hotel rooms, for example. Have you been in a hotel room recently? Have you seen those little cards encouraging you to be green and re-use your towels? In one study looking at norms, Noah Goldstein and colleagues tried out different  towel-reuse-cards to see which one would work the best. Each guest at a certain hotel either saw a “Please Reuse Your Towel” card with no normative information, a card mentioning that the “majority of past guests at this hotel have reused their towels,” or an even more specific card mentioning that “the majority of past guests who stayed in this room have reused their towels.” The researchers found that the more specific the normative information, the more likely the guests were to reuse their towels themselves. Telling people that the majority of past guests who stayed in that room reused their towels had an especially strong effect on their likelihood of reusing the towels themselves.
That’s fine and all, but can they really work better than prescriptive norms?
Sure they can. In a different study, Robert Cialdini was trying to combat a big problem in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Many people would visit this park and then take the petrified wood from the forest with them after they visited, as a sort of souvenir…but this small action, multipled by thousands of visitors, had a dramatically negative effect on the local ecosystem. Cialdini had to find a way to get people to stop taking the wood with them.
So what did he do? He placed different norm-based signs in the forest. The sign either used prescriptive norms to tell people what they should do (e.g. “Please don’t take the wood from the forest”) or they used descriptive norms to tell people what others actually do, either telling the truth (“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest”) or lying (“The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest”). In this situation, prescriptive norms worked the best, but the next-best option was the descriptive norm telling people that most other visitors do not take the wood. When people saw the descriptive norm stating that most people take the wood, even though the point of this message was to show how damaging this is, they were significantly more likely to take the wood themselves — because everyone else was doing it. When they saw the descriptive norm saying that most people don’t take the wood, however, it discouraged from taking the wood because doing so would have made them different. 
The researchers conclude that when it comes to getting people not to do something (e.g. “Don’t take the wood!”), prescriptive norms work best. However, when you are trying to get people to act, it’s actually more effective to send out an “Everybody’s doing it!” descriptive norm, which will encourage people to fit themselves into the norm.
What does this tell us about voting? Since you are trying to get people to do something (not avoid doing something), set strong, positive descriptive norms! Wear your “I Voted” stickers, tweet that you voted, update your Facebook status, and encourage everyone to broadcast the simple fact that they voted to the world! Setting a strong descriptive norm by making it clear that the majority of people are voting is the most effective way to use norm-based compliance to get people out to the polls – it should be even more effective than prescriptive norms stating that it’s what they should be doing. It also helps if these descriptive norms are as specific as possible – knowing that most other people in your age group, sorority/fraternity, neighborhood, club, school, whatever have voted can make the norm more powerful, just like the hotel room norms with the towels. And whatever you do, do NOT accidentally set a descriptive norm saying that most members of someone’s group do not vote (e.g. by saying something like, “Most young people don’t vote! You should go be a leader and let your voice be heard!”) Even though it sounds inspiring, a descriptive norm like that can backfire — BIG time.
So slap on that sticker, be a loudmouth, and set some good, strong descriptive norms! You have a few hours left to let people know that everyone’s doin’ it!


Goldstein, N., Cialdini, R., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (3), 472-482 DOI: 10.1086/586910
Cialdini, R., Demaine, L., Sagarin, B., Barrett, D., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact Social Influence, 1 (1), 3-15 DOI: 10.1080/15534510500181459