I Know What You Did Last Election: Using Social Pressure to Mobilize Voters

Academics typically maintain a comfortable distance from real-world electioneering, but scholarly interest in practical politics has experienced a renaissance of sorts over the past decade thanks partly to pioneering research being conducted by Yale University political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green and their colleagues.

Much of their attention has focused on examining the effectiveness of efforts to get out the vote by conducting field experiments to investigate a wide range of tactics and outreach. One of the more fascinating findings to emerge from this research program of late is that voters are especially responsive to social pressure.

An article published in the American Political Science Review in 2008 by Gerber and Green and their University of Northern Iowa colleague Christopher Larimer showed that exposing voters to postcards delivered via direct mail with their neighbors’ recent voting history boosted turnout by more than 8 percentage points on average—an effect that is remarkably strong compared to other GOTV tactics. In fact, the authors note it is, “by far the most cost-effective voter mobilization tactic studied to date.”  

A series of follow-up studies published in September 2010 as a special issue of Political Behavior reinforces the notion that social pressure stimulates voting. In the introduction to the volume, editors Green and Gerber clarify that what they have in mind by “social pressure” is “communications that play upon a basic human drive to win praise and avoid chastisement.

Social pressure may be exerted by praising those who uphold norms or scorning those who violate them. Social pressure increases with the amount of praise or scorn, which is why social pressure is thought to be amplified when a person’s compliance with social norms is disclosed to others.”  

Green and Gerber go on to argue that social pressure communications typically involve three ingredients: they admonish voters to adhere to a social norm [like voting], indicate that the voter’s compliance will be monitored, and suggest that the monitored behavior will be publicized.  

In practice, injecting social pressure elements into GOTV appeals is tricky for campaigns; there is always the potential for backlash. But finding clever and creative ways of doing so may generate the kind of punch campaign operatives need to drive voters to the polls on Election Day.

In the 2008 general election, for example, MoveOn took social pressure to heart and created “Make Sure All Your Friends Vote,” a groundbreaking viral video tool that used social peer pressure to urge friends to vote. The tool enabled voters to customize a humorous and fictitious newscast with their friends’ names suggesting that their failure to vote cost Obama the election.

More recently, the experiments summarized in the special issue suggest softer social pressure messages are also effective.  

The insights about the psychology of voting provided by these studies—and their implications—have the capacity to illuminate how campaigns can sharpen their communications appeals to maximize effectiveness.

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