Study finds social pressure drives voter turnout

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When people decide whether or not to vote, they probably aren’t expecting to cast the tie-breaking ballot. Instead, a growing body of research suggests voters go to the polls as a result of pressure from others — voting to avoid the social stigma of having shirked their civic duty.

A study by UC Berkeley economics and business administration professors, in collaboration with professors from the University of Chicago and Harvard quantifies how much social pressure influences would-be voters. The study is set to be published in the Review of Economic Studies, a top economics journal.

The researchers found that people’s concern about being asked whether they voted in the 2010 congressional election increased turnout by two percentage points and argue that doubling how often people are asked if they voted could increase turnout by two percentage points more.

Previous studies have found that mailed get-out-the-vote campaigns increase voter turnout by an average of just 0.2 percentage points.

“Two percentage points will open the margin where an election is decided,” said Stefano DellaVigna, the study’s lead author. “If the campaigns encourage people to ask others more, this could have a really sizable impact on turnout.”

In 2011, research assistants administered surveys to people in largely Democratic Chicago suburbs. On the day before some of the surveys were administered, flyers were posted on residents’ doors, informing them they would be surveyed, as a means of priming some of their respondents.

Some flyers contained only logistical information about the survey, while others informed residents that it would specifically ask them about their participation in the 2010 congressional election. All flyers gave the survey’s anticipated duration, and some flyers promised to pay respondents between $5 and $10 for their participation, giving participants an incentive to answer the door when research assistants came the next day to conduct the survey.

Based on the number of people answering the survey, as well as voting records allowing the researchers to know whether respondents had lied to surveyors, researchers estimated that people ascribe a $7 value to being seen as a voter rather than a nonvoter.

In addition, the researchers estimated that respondents valued the negative effect of lying to a surveyor at $7, implying that they would rather lose just under $7 than lie to the surveyor.

Researchers also collected data on how many times respondents reported being asked whether they had voted in the 2010 congressional election. Combining their findings, the economists also estimated that voters’ ability to tell others they voted was worth $18 to them, while nonvoters valued the same ability at $13.

“That comparison allows us to know in dollar terms how much people like or hate being asked about voting compared to how much they value $10. That is the key idea,” DellaVigna said. “All of the other studies basically are able to say qualitatively, ‘We think social norms matter.’ … They don’t come down to the exact magnitude, and that’s sort of the contribution of the economists.”

Campus elections experts said the study was consistent with past work and that they weren’t surprised by its results.

DellaVigna said President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign used findings from previous studies analyzing social pressure and voting decisions in its efforts to increase voter turnout. He added that this year’s presidential candidates are likely using the same techniques in their campaigns.

“People want to be thought of as good civic citizens — they want to be thought of as responsible people, they want others to respect them,” said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, who praised the study for bridging a gap in the literature between theoretical models and experimental evidence.That’s exactly what these folks found.”

Contact Simon Greenhill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @simondgreenhill.