David Nickerson and Todd Rogers targeted 155,669 voters on the electoral roll in Pennsylvania. Frequent voters had been excluded, so these were people who'd chosen to vote only once between 2000 and the time of this study, which took place just prior to the 2008 presidential primary.
Would-be voters received one of three kinds of phone call: either they were encouraged to vote and reminded of their duty; they were asked whether they intended to vote; or they were asked more detailed questions about when, where etc they planned to vote. A control group received no phone call.
A classic study in the 1980s found that simply asking people if they intended to vote ended up making them more likely to vote - a phenomenon known as the 'self-prophecy effect'. However, this effect wasn't replicated here. Would-be voters in the current study, who were simply asked whether they planned to vote or not, were barely more likely to vote than the control group. Same story for the participants who received a call with encouragement to vote. By contrast, would-be voters who were asked questions about the when and where of their voting intentions were, on average, 4.1 per cent more likely to vote than controls.
There's a further twist. Digging deeper the researchers realised that the detailed questions about voting intentions only exerted an influence on would-be voters who were the sole eligible voter in their household. Focusing on just these people, the detailed voting intentions phone call led to an average 9.1 per cent increase in turnout. For people living in a household with multiple eligible voters, by contrast, the same kind of phone call was completely ineffective. Nickerson and Rogers think this difference probably arose because people living in a household with other eligible voters had already had conversations about when and where they planned to vote.
'This research contributes to a growing body of work using behavioural science to facilitate socially important behaviours,' the researchers concluded. 'Campaign professionals can use psychological science more widely to help citizens follow through on their intentions to vote.'
Nickerson DW, & Rogers T (2010). Do you have a voting plan?: implementation intentions, voter turnout, and organic plan making. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (2), 194-9 PMID: 20424044
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