Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

#5: Barack Obama’s pledge to vote technique

President Barack Obama of the United States is well known for his powerful and effective speeches and campaigns and in fact used his personal Consortium of Behavioural Scientists (CORBS) to help create scripts for his 2012 campaign. This CORBS included Dr Robert Cialdini, author of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. Cialdini’s six key principles of influence are of course reciprocity, commitment, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity (Cialdini, 2001). Since Obama tends to draw on such a multitude of persuasive techniques, I will attempt to home in a single one of Cialdini’s principles; commitment.

During Obama’s 2012 campaign, volunteers asked potential voters if they would sign a commitment to vote card with the president’s picture on it. Obama also has a section on his website called ‘Commit To Vote’ ( These are informal and voluntary agreements, but the fact that the would-be voter has already made a commitment to vote increases the likelihood that they will follow through. There was even an email sent out featuring film star Jessica Alba asking voters to put their hands over their hearts and pledge their vote to Obama. These techniques work so well because people prefer to follow pre-existing attitudes, values and actions and to remain consistent with their past selves.

Greenwald et al (1987) contacted students by telephone and asked them to predict whether they would vote or register to vote in the next few days. Participants who were asked if they would vote all predicted that they would and subsequently voted with substantially greater probability than participants who were not asked for a prediction (86.7% of those asked voted compared to 61.5% of those who were not asked). The researchers concluded that asking people if they will perform a socially desirable action appears to actually increase their probability of carrying it out.

References Cialdini, R. B. (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284, 76-81.

Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 315-318.

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