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Bryan et al: Motivating Voter Turnout by Invoking the Self

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Bryan, Christopher J.; Walton, Gregory M.; Rogers, Todd; Dweck, Carol S. 2011. Motivating Voter Turnout by Invoking the Self. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (early online edition).

I find voter mobilization experiments fascinating. That's why I write about them a lot (e.g. here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). But the study I just read may be the coolest one yet.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that we can dramatically boost turnout simply by reminding people to "be a voter" rather than "to vote." When we ask people to "be a voter" and not just "to vote," we lead them to think about their social identity. People like to view themselves as good citizens, worthy of social approval. People also know that voting is something good citizens do. When a person thinks "I am a voter" instead of "I will vote," they think about their social identity and are motivated to vote.

The PNAS study presents three experiments. I'll focus on the second and third experiments. In each of these experiments, registered voters were given a brief survey the day before a statewide election (or the morning of the election). Experiment 2 studied the 2008 California gubernatorial race; experiment 3 studied the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial race. Survey respondents answered a handful of questions, but there was one question that contained the experimental condition. In that question, respondents were asked to rate how important it is to them "to vote" (control group) or "to be a voter" (treatment group). That was the extent of the experimental condition.

Then, after the election, the researchers searched official voter records to see which participants had actually turned out. Those in the "be a voter" treatment condition turned out at much higher rates than those in the "to vote" control group. Take a look at the table below. In experiment 2, the treatment boosted turnout from 81.8% in the control group to 95.5% in the treatment group, a 13.7 percentage point (i.e. 16.7%) boost. In experiment 3, the treatment raised turnout from 79.0 to 89.9, a 10.9 percentage point (i.e. 13.8%) boost.

Turnout in control groupTurnout in treatment groupTreatment effect
Experiment 2 (CA 2008)81.895.5+13.7
Experiment 3 (NJ 2009)79.089.9+10.9

As the authors note, these effects "are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout." What's stunning is that these effects resulted from such a subtle manipulation.

It's also stunning that these large increases come despite the high turnout rate in the control group. Many turnout experiments take place in municipal elections, where the expected turnout is in the 10-30% range. In that context, there are many high-propensity voters who can easily be mobilized. But here, the authors have found large effects even among a population of high-propensity voters (note that all their subjects are already registered voters) during a high-salience election.


I have no criticism of the study's methodology or conclusions. This is an excellent paper that is well worth reading. And, in the great style of PNAS, it is only 4 pages long instead of the 30 pages that we often allow in top political science journals. Oh, how I wish that all our journals would switch to a 4-6 page limit, with supporting information online! But I digress.

This paper suggests clear avenues for future research. Surely there are many other cases in politics where a subtle shift from noun to verb could influence public opinion, if not actual political behavior.

What I really want to see, though, is a study that combines this approach with the other voter mobilization experiments we've seen in the past. Past experiments have tested whether door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, post cards, and other tactics can boost turnout. I would love to see an experiment where the canvassers adjust their message to urge people either "to vote" or "to be a voter."

Research on similar subjects


Bryan, Christopher J. (author)Walton, Gregory M. (author)Rogers, Todd (author)Dweck, Carol S. (author)American PoliticsExperimentMobilizationPolitical BehaviorTurnoutVoting

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