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Voter Vanity: Tricky Question Boosts Turnout

To boost voter turnout, an unexpectedly simple turn of phrase may do the trick — ask people to be voters instead of just asking them to vote, scientists find.

These findings could help raise voter turnout, which has been relatively low in many established democracies for decades. For instance, for the past 40 years or so, a little more than half of the voting-age population, at most, has decided who would become the U.S. president.

Social psychologist Christopher Bryan at Stanford University focused on voting for his research, "because I've been interested, for a long time, in trying to come up with ways to encourage political engagement," Bryan said. "Democracy doesn't work well unless citizens are engaged."

Bryan and his colleagues investigated how connecting voting to people's views of themselves might influence whether they would vote.

"I was interested in the idea that we're continually trying to become the person we really want to be," he explained. "We play an active role in shaping our own self-image, and one way we do this is by behaving like the kind of person we want to be."

It occurred to him that a simple change in wording might harness the desire people have to see themselves in a positive light — "'being a voter' feels more meaningful than 'voting,' because it lets you take on a desirable identity," Bryan said.

In one experiment testing their idea, Bryan and his colleagues surveyed 34 Californians who were eligible to vote in the 2008 presidential election but were not registered to vote at the time. Half randomly got surveys with questions connecting voting with the word "voter," such as "How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?" The other half did not, with questions, such as "How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?" Afterward, 87.5 percent of those who received the voter-centric survey said they were very or extremely interested in voting compared with 55.6 percent of those who did not.

Two more experiments pinned down how these surveys influenced voter turnout in two elections — 88 potential voters in the 2008 presidential election in California and 214 volunteers facing the 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. "Just referring to voting as 'being a voter' caused a major increase in turnout — more than 13 percent," Bryan said.

"I think the message from these findings is that people care a lot about seeing themselves as good and worthy," Bryan told LiveScience. "People know voting is a good thing to do but may not bother to vote because they dismiss it as 'just another behavior,' but calling it 'being a voter' signals that voting isn't just a behavior, it's a reflection of the kind of person you are."

One of the exciting things about this change in phrasing "is that it's really easy to integrate with get-out-the-vote messages," Bryan noted. "If canvassers were saying 'We hope you're planning to come out and vote tomorrow,' it's really easy and relatively unobtrusive for them to change that to 'We hope you're planning to be a voter tomorrow,' and our research suggests they'd get a lot more bang for their buck if they did."

The researchers are now starting to explore whether they can similarly influence other types of behavior. "For example, can you get people to adopt healthier eating habits by talking about being a healthy eater?" Bryan said. "Could we get people to persist longer at difficult tasks before giving up by urging them not to be a quitter?" [7 Diet Tricks That Really Work]

Also, "how early in life do people become conscious of and start managing their self-images in this way? We're looking at whether preschool-age children are more helpful to an adult when it's called 'being a helper' than when it's just called 'helping,'" he added.

The scientists detailed their findings online July 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.