The "I Voted!" sticker might not seem like much. It's silly, a holdover from a simpler time (the '80s, to be exact). Some even say the stickers are a financial suck on the government. Many cities have gotten rid of them completely, including Chicago (as I was loathe to find out as a recent transplant).
But some research suggests that just telling people we voted could actually play into some pretty complex behavioral calculus for most of us. And it may reveal why people do—and don’t—go to the polls, a problem that has confounded governments and designers alike for decades.
It’s a question that four researchers at Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Chicago set out to study a few years ago. And their findings, published in a paper called Voting To Tell Others and featured this fall in The Review of Economic Studies and Berkeley News, reveal some startling truths about participating in democracy. While we might like to think of it as a noble pursuit, voting is deeply tied to more base human feelings and motivations, like social standing—basically, wanting to show off how good we are—along with dishonesty and shame.
It all boils down to this: Many of us vote so that we can tell everyone else we voted. And we don’t want to have to lie about it if we didn't.
A little background: The researchers carried out a series of field experiments focused on the 2010 and '12 elections. In one case they hung a doorknob reminder on homes before an election, notifying them that researchers would show up three weeks later to conduct a survey on their participation (a control group just got a simple doorknob reminder about the election). In others, they offered small amounts of cash to incentivize lying about their voting record. The key? The researchers already had those records, so they knew who had really voted, who hadn't, and at what point people would be incentivized, down to the dollar.
It turned out that people were more likely to vote if they knew they would be asked. "Individuals with social-image motives are more likely to vote, the more they expect to be asked," the researchers explained. What’s more, the "cost" of having to lie about voting was pretty high, at about $7 per non-voter. In short: People don’t like having to say they voted if they didn’t. And they do like advertising that they voted—which brings us back to the "I Voted!" sticker. The effect of this "social pressure" has been noted by other researchers, too, as the Atlantic pointed out during the last election.
Nonprofits like Rock the Vote have tried to increase youth turnout by making voting rockstar-cool with support from celebrities. Political campaigns themselves spend millions to drive supporters to the polls, often with a potent mixture of fear and anger. Yet the simplest tactic might just be giving people a way to brag about voting—through an actual sticker, or a Facebook or Instagram status. That, and reminding them that they’re going to get the question on November 8, as Stefano DellaVigna, professor of economics at Berkeley and an author of the paper, put it. "Even more directly, campaigns could say, ‘Your friends and neighbors will ask you after the election if you voted—do not forget to vote!,’" he said over email. This week, Facebook debuted a special reminder to drive voter registration playing on the same idea, letting users post about being registered. Instagram and Twitter are doing similar drives.
What’s so compelling about this research isn’t what it means for campaign designers, super PACs, or social media platforms. It’s that anyone who wants to help get out the vote may be able to do so—simply by talking about it. The message that someone’s definitely going to ask you whether you voted is incredibly powerful to our socially minded pack animal brains. It might be your mom, or your brother, or your nosy next-door neighbor, or your boss. But either way, they’re going to ask—and most of us would rather just go to the polls than have to feel bad about lying to our friends.