By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate
Few political and social occasions have been needing and taking advantage of behavioural insights as much as the period preceding political elections and the moment of the vote itself.
In fact, nowadays, two major problems obstruct the correct and useful functioning of the democratic ritual that voting represents: on the one hand, the constant lowering of voters’ turnout that modern democracy is currently facing, and, on the other hand, the ambiguity of the formulation of questions and answers on the actual voting ballot, which only leads citizens to get confused about how they should vote. The applications of nudges during political elections have been numerous and widespread in the last few years and to give an idea of the immense power that behavioural interventions can have in this field, the following paragraphs will propose a comparison between a disastrous case that was caused by poor application of behavioral insights versus some clever and winning examples of it.
American elections (horror) story: the case of 2000
In 2000, candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore were running for the U.S. presidential elections. At that time, in Palm Beach County (Florida), it was common practice to adopt a punch card voting system: voters just had to punch the ballot to select their favourite candidate. Unfortunately, the so called “butterfly” ballot was so wrongly designed that more than 2000 Democratic voters confused the democratic candidate Al Gore with the Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. What has gone wrong?
Many voters said they had expected Gore and Bush to be the first two choices, and – since people usually tend to limit their cognitive effort – they also never scanned the names in the right-side column to check their assumption: as a consequence, they automatically punched the second hole instead of the third. As predictable, Pat Buchanan recorded in Palm Beach 3,407 votes (where only 371 were statistically predicted), and George W. Bush got enough votes to win in Florida with a 537-vote margin.
As we know from nudge literature, a certain design has the power to influence behaviour of people, and, in this case, it ignored voters’ status quo bias: a cognitive mechanism that makes us stick to the first decision or assumption made to avoid supplementary cognitive work. A better design should therefore have reduced the cognitive work involved in understanding where the first two candidates were listed. Unfortunately, ballot design change is a complex matter that still causes concern today: in his research, Lawrence Norden stated that in the 2008’s and 2010’s general elections more than 400,000 voters had their ballots annulled for mistakes. This happens because improvements are slow due to bureaucracy, and best practices tend to be implemented too late.
However, different solutions do exist. In particular, policy-makers should aim at the adoption of a more user-friendly layout of paper ballots, designing them to avoid any kind of bias through clearly stated instructions and distinct colour patterns (moreover, showing facsimiles to instruct voters beforehands can always be a good idea). Similarly, in the case of use of electronic systems, it could be useful to assess the efficacy of the interface through the now common usability tests.
American elections (behavioural) story: the case of 2008 and 2012
Whereas in the previous cases it was possible to notice an evident absence of behavioural consciousness in the policy-makers, America also provides a virtuous example of application of behavioural insights. In fact, with Barack Obama something began to change: he was one of the first American presidents who made explicit use of behavioural insights to his advantage. Recruiting an actual team of behavioural scientists to sustain and guide his political campaigns, he eventually managed to beat his Republican opponents both in 2008 and 2012.
So, what did this behavioural insights team find and how did it help Obama win?
The strategy of behavioural scientists David Nickerson and Todd Rogers – from University of Notre Dame and Harvard Kennedy School respectively – was to focus on monitoring what can be called people’s “behavioural journey” towards the vote. They studied which cognitive biases can arise when people have to face a future vote. What they found is that people don’t only struggle to make a decision about who to vote for, but they often also fail to plan how to vote, finding themselves trapped in procrastination, laziness, and confusion about where to go and what exactly to do on the crucial day.
Therefore, to understand how to nudge people to actually go out and cast that vote, the two scientists conducted a randomized control trial on 278.000 eligible voters of Pennsylvania during 2008’s elections, dividing the subjects into three groups: one control, one receiving the standard phone call reciting the protocol “get out the vote” message, and a third experimental group that, after the standard message, was also asked practical questions about what time they were going to vote, where they were coming from, and what they would be doing before voting. The results showed an increase in the turnouts of about 9% from people in the third group, showing that when people are nudged to make up a specific plan, it is then easier for them to stick with it. A simple but effective application of this principle therefore consists in giving practical information about the modalities of vote as much as possible.
Moreover, another interesting study was led during the same period by social psychologist Christopher J. Bryan and his colleagues from Stanford University. Before the same 2008’s elections, they sent out an online survey divided into two target groups: one asking people whether or not they thought it was important for them “to vote”, the other one asking whether it was important for them to “be a voter”. Not only they received answers to the survey from 87% of the people in the second group versus the 55% of the first, but they also found – in a follow-up study – that 96% of the people in the second group actually voted, against 82% of people from the first group. What this study clearly shows goes beyond a simple framing effect (the cognitive bias that makes us perceive the same thing differently based on how it is framed or formulated), pointing to the interesting conclusion that people respond better to a call to action when they are appealed and motivated by the idea that they are shown about themselves doing that action, rather than by the idea of the action per se: a phenomenon called personal-identity phrasing. Again, this useful insight was used during Obama’s campaign by addressing the potential voters in a way to remark their identity as a voter, powerfully triggering the need to reaffirm that identity once more.
In conclusion, the presented examples showed how behavioural insights (and sometimes their absence) can have massive impacts in the context of political elections: a context where the ability to drive the behaviour of considerable numbers of citizens is of crucial importance. Therefore, it is important to recognize how this power can be exploited for political purposes and that it might affect political results in desired or unexpected ways.