Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Running for office, jogging for votes

July 18th, 2011

ExerciseIf one of your personal goals is to get more people to vote, a recent study has a new approach for you: get them thinking about exercise.

Previous studies have found that several factors are associated with political participation. For example, older voters, people with a stronger political interest and those who are more geographically mobile are all more likely to vote. However, Kenji Noguchi, Ian Handley and Dolores Albarracín noticed that even added together, these factors didn’t account for the differences in voter turnout that happen in different places.

advance poll - votingIt occurred to them that political activity might also be related to other kinds of activity… so they started doing studies.

They began by gathering international data on activity levels: things like “pace of life” (based on a country’s average walking speed, postal speed and clock accuracy), scores from the activity and impulsiveness sections of personality questionnaires, use and abuse of stimulants (such as cocaine), and measures of communication activity (such as numbers of newspapers and telephones per citizen). They put together as many of these as were available for 69 countries and came up with an “action-tendency index” for each country.

Then they gathered data on political participation, including voter turnout, petition signing and demonstrations, and compared their numbers to the activity results. Sure enough, the higher a country’s “action-tendency index,” the more politically active its citizens were.

To confirm their results, Noguchi and his colleagues measured similar factors in different parts of the United States and found the same thing: higher activity levels meant more political participation. Still, both these analyses only showed that activity and political behaviour were associated, not that one caused the other. So, they did a more direct experiment.

They first asked university students to complete a list of incomplete words (such as “A _ T _ _ _”). Some students had a word list that included action-related words like “go” and “move”. Others had a list containing inaction-related words like “sit”. A third group had a list with neutral words. Then, in a supposedly separate experiment, all the students were asked whether they intended to vote or campaign in an upcoming election. Those students who had completed action-related words said they were more likely to participate in that election than those who had completed inaction-related words.

A second experiment found that completing action-related words also made students more likely to take action about a new policy at their university.

This is an example of priming, which I’ve discussed before. It occurs when we are exposed to something that affects our responses to a later situation. Other studies have shown that priming with action-related words in a word completion task makes people eat more, choose more vigorous activities, and solve puzzles more quickly. It appears that it also makes us more likely to become politically engaged.

I doubt you want to start asking people to do word puzzles, but the idea still has potential for use, even outside politics. Bring up a new project when your audience is most energetic. Put up photos of race winners to encourage your volunteers to go the extra mile. Get your people thinking about activity and energy when you want them to get involved.

Keep it realistic, though. Signing your team up for a marathon is likely to make them vote, all right… and the first thing they’ll do is vote to have you replaced. Or possibly tarred and feathered.

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