Social Impact and the Decision to Vote

In continuing with today’s theme of the impact of the “social” in political science, we note that political parties the world over have spent a lot of money and developed various ideas and hypotheses regarding what motivates voters to go to the polls and exercise their most basic democratic right. In the most recent issue (which is behind a pay wall) of the American Political Science Review–the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association–a group of political scientists, led by Donald Green at Yale, has demonstrated that social shaming may be a way to increase overall voter turnout.* Here is the abstract, with a sample of the letters sent below:

Voter turnout theories based on rational self-interested behavior generally fail to predict significant turnout unless they account for the utility that citizens receive from performing their civic duty. We distinguish between two aspects of this type of utility, intrinsic satisfaction from behaving in accordance with a norm and extrinsic incentives to comply, and test the effects of priming intrinsic motives and applying varying degrees of extrinsic pressure. A large-scale field experiment involving several hundred thousand registered voters used a series of mailings to gauge these effects. Substantially higher turnout was observed among those who received mailings promising to publicize their turnout to their household or their neighbors. These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation.

Would you be susceptible to being shamed into voting? Well, the authors find that the overall impact of threatening to publicize your (non)-voting behavior to your neighbors was to increase turnout by 8.1 percentage points. That’s an astounding impact. Here are the letters:


This letter increased the rate of voter turnout by 4.9 percentage points, a much stronger effect than appeals to civic duty alone (which raised turnout from between 1.8 and 2.5 percentage points.


This is the letter that produced an 8.1 percentage point increase in voter turnout.

*For a web site that tracks voter turnout rates worldwide, please see this post.