A recent study by the Stanford Psychology Department has shown that voter turnout can be significantly increased in state and national elections by using nouns instead of verbs–that is, asking people if they are “voters” instead of asking them “to vote.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July. It involved three experiments over two elections, California ballots in the 2008 Presidential election and the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election.
Researchers gave surveys to potential voters. One group was asked, “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”; the other asked, “How important is it to you to be a voter?”
“When you talk about ‘being a voter,’ it frames that behavior as something that is going to…signal the kind of person you are,” said Christopher Bryan, lead author of the study and post-doctoral scholar in psychology. “Because people think that it is generally good to be the kind of person who votes, they were significantly more likely to show up at the polls the next day.”
The first and second experiments took place in California and examined the ability of a noun to improve voter registration and participation, respectively. The third, which occurred in New Jersey, found that 10.9 percent more people voted in the group asked about “being a voter.”
The study concluded that “the effects in experiments two and three are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout.”
The study stems from previous research done by Bryan and assistant professor of psychology Greg Walton. Walton had previously done research on the topic of how noun and verb phrasing impacts perception of one’s likes and dislikes.
“We asked people to write ‘I am a baseball fan’ versus, ‘I like baseball a lot,’” Walton said. “People actually inferred that they themselves like baseball or chocolate or Coke…more when they had described it using these noun phrases.”
The research has sparked further experiments on the effects of this language on children, which are already underway.