Last week, my dad called me after he dropped off his ballot at a polling location in Georgia. He mentioned that after he finished voting, he signed up to be a poll worker. He said that a few of his friends had posted on Facebook that they had signed up through the ACLU to become poll workers, encouraging others to do the same. After spending a good 30 minutes overwhelmed by what I can now identify as hope, it dawned upon me the value and criticality of social influence during this election. 

Behavioral science doesn’t just explain how to get people to vote in the first place, it also explains how people can get other people to vote as well. 

Two weeks ago, we discussed how organizations can encourage individuals to vote using key principles of behavioral science. This week, we explore how organizations might use behavioral science to drive relational organizing, and ultimately help individuals activate their personal networks to cast their ballots.

The concept: social influence & behavioral science

Personal relationships can be a powerful motivator. At a baseline level, humans are motivated to create meaningful relationships with other humans. Having an understanding of what other people do (particularly those you know) can be a stronger influence on how people behave, than knowing what society at large says they should do. According to a literature review of 21 studies (across a variety of topics such as eating healthy, smoking, and infidelity), whenever we feel uncertain about what to do, we tend to look to others in our networks for answers on how to act. Psychologists call this social proof, and it occurs when we are unsure of how to act and try to fit in with the people around us

Robert Parscale notes on this topic: “We use social proof to decide how to dispose of an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a highway, or whether to tackle that fried chicken or corn on the cob with our hands at a dinner party. At the more consequential end of the spectrum, we rely on social proof to inform moral choices – whether to assist an inebriated football enthusiast who falls on the sidewalk or step forward as a whistleblower.”

In increasing numbers, campaigners are turning to relational organizing, as we’ve written about before, to leverage the power of social proof and influence to encourage voting. And more broadly, much of the research around voting and social influence finds that casting your ballot can be contagious. The more people in your network who vote, the more likely it is for you to vote. People are strongly influenced to adopt norms around political and civic engagement from their personal networks and families. 

People also take cues, particularly on social media, on information about voting from their networks. Social networking coupled with voting encouragement has been found to have substantively large effects on political behavior. Outside of social media, peer-to-peer encouragement to vote is also effective for elections in which there’s a smallamount of information available to voters about the issues or who’s on the ballot. 

Now that it’s clear that social influence has a powerful role in the actions we take, there are a few ways in which we can use tactics that persuade audiences to encourage their networks to vote.

The tactics: leaning on behavioral science and relational organizing

How do you put social proof into practice — to actually rally people to activate their networks and make their voices heard? Behavioral science can provide us guidance.

Reducing Choice & Endorsing Categories

Behavioral science shows us that when people are overloaded with choices, they are less likely to take action. By simplifying the number of choices, you can encourage your target audience to take a desired action. For example, in a study of employee behavior, it was found that the fewer 401(k) choices offered, the more likely employees were to actually pick a plan and save for retirement. Your audiences may have large and varied networks, and it could be difficult for them to understand where to start. To reduce choices, motivate your audiences to reach out to a specific and small number of personal connections to get the ball rolling.

Endorsing the types of people to reach out to may also help your audiences overcome choice overload. Behavioral science studies show that the presence of categorized options helps consumers make purchasing decisions that they are more satisfied with. In a relational organizing context, your organization can provide examples of the types of connections people can reach out to spread voter information, for example: a friend, family member, a co-worker.

Relational Organizing and Vote Tripling

We’ve written before about relational organizing tools that leverage these behavioral science tactics to drive advocacy objectives. VoteTripling.org is a relational organizing framework that uses these principles to recruit volunteers who help get out the vote within their own networks. The vote tripling method, piloted during the 2018 election, begins with campaigns getting audiences to pledge to ask three friends to vote, and then towards Election Day, sends an SMS reminder to contact the three friends they pledged to mobilize. Vote tripling helps reduce choice by asking people to only reach out to three individuals. It also endorses categories by making suggestions of the types of people to reach out to (“one co-worker, one family member, and one neighbor”). It also streamlines the number of steps it takes to take an action through an extremely simple signup process. 

Lessons from VoteTripling show that you may be able to multiply the effects of your GOTV efforts by: (1) encouraging your audiences to reach out to an achievable number of people and mobilize them to vote, and (2) making the process simple, clear, and easy to understand.

In real life: Behavioral science and encouraging communities of color to vote

We can use the power of social proof, the concept of relational organizing, and its clear success in driving votes to inspire and empower communities of color to vote. While there are a multitude of voter suppression barriers that prevent communities of color from voting (requiring a unique set of political and legal interventions), we can leverage the social proof concept to come out ahead and address some of the more behavioral barriers to voting that communities of color face. 

Social influence from personal networks and communities will be a key tool in addressing the behavioral barriers that prevent communities of color from voting, according to Ideas42, a behavioral science firm. This involves not only leveraging tactics such as vote tripling, but also tapping into local community networks, such as places of employment, places of prayer, schools, local nonprofits, and other established community organizations to help mobilize these communities to cast their ballots. And in a key study on encouraging political and civic engagement among immigrant communities in the U.S., Caroline Bettell notes it will be key to : “…approach or reach out to immigrant communities through their own institutions — such as ethnic media, voluntary organizations, community events, etc. The ethnic media can provide greater access to election materials and information.” 

And we have seen social proof and influence work successfully in the past to encourage communities of color to exercise their right to vote. During the 2018 midterm elections, undocumented children of immigrants (a.k.a Dreamers) were successful in turning out Latino communities around Los Angeles and Houston to vote; this effort was found to be a key driver in flipping six GOP-held congressional seats in California that year. During the 2017 Alabama Senate race, advocacy groups like Woke Vote organized to turn out Black voters by “installing student organizers in places like Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, and Tuskegee University and the string of influential churches in Black communities.” These efforts helped Woke Vote secure commitments to vote from students, but also from their families and friends. And, in the 2018 midterm election in Texas’s 22nd Congressional District, Sri Kulkarni’s campaign developed campaign materials in 16 different languages and took out ads in publications that are well known among members of the Asian community in Texas. The efforts paid off in helping to drive out Asian American voters. In that race, 28% of Asian voters participated in the Democratic primary in 2018, compared to just 6% in 2014.

In each case, advocacy organizations and campaigns were able to turn out communities of color to vote because they leveraged the power and potential of social connection. When it comes to mobilizing more BIPOC to vote in this election, we encourage you to connect with the communities you aim to reach both in the places and digital platforms they frequent, and while doing so, you’ll activate your audiences to inspire their own networks to vote as well. 

The ripple effect

Organizations and institutions, regardless of mission — from corporations, to nonprofits, to higher education — certainly have an opportunity and responsibility to promote democratic norms and encourage voting. What’s more, there will be a multiplicative effect if they do. If one person is inspired to cast their ballot, they have an opportunity to organize their own networks as well. Behavioral science shows us that by making the process of relational organizing achievable, understandable, and customizable to your audience’s own environmental contexts, organizations will be able to not only empower their audiences to vote this election, but also empower them to spread the message to others around them. 


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