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You Have a Group of Social Scientists to Thank for Obama's Re-Election -- Read Why


The Obama campaign played upon peoples' desire to conform using scientifically tested techniques.

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the New Amsterdam Theatre on June 4, 2012, in New York. We're pretty sure he's asking the crowd to let him be clear (AP)

MOUNT VERNON, IA - OCTOBER 17: People cheer as U.S. President Barrack Obama addresses a group at the Richard and Norma Small Multi-Sports Center Gym at Cornell College on October 17, 2012 in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Credit: Getty Images

One persistently interesting story that has emerged since the wrap-up of this fall's campaign by President Barack Obama is the story of how the Obama campaign's operations were dictated not by liberal ideology but by a process consumed with data and an attempt to scientifically boost turnout.

Conservatives sneered at this approach prior to the election for its attempt to obviate human free will as a factor. Now that it has worked, Republican consultants are probably combing through the strategy to see how to replicate it on their side. And one particularly interesting area where this data-driven approach appears to have been not only used, but pushed further than anyone had before, can be seen in an article by the New York Times explaining the campaign's consultation with scientists studying behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics is a relatively new field of economic analysis that blends insights from psychology and neuroscience with econometric equations to model how human beings make their decisions. It has gained special currency on the Left because many liberals see its conclusions as contradicting the presumption by classical economists that every decision is "rational." That this is a straw man of the economic definition of "rationality" does not appear to phase these would-be critics.

However, despite its currency on the Left, behavioral economics leans neither direction (though many authors, such as Cass Sunstein, have sought to apply its insights to government), as it is focused exclusively on understanding human decision-making processes, and what stimuli are most likely to make people choose particular options. That is where the Obama campaign decided to use it - specifically, to figure out what would motivate people to vote.

From the New York Times article:

In a now classic experiment, a pair of Stanford psychologists asked people if they would display in a home window a small card proclaiming the importance of safe driving. Those who agreed to this small favor were later much more likely to agree to a much larger favor, to post a large “Drive Carefully” sign on their lawn — “something no one would agree to do otherwise,” Dr. Cialdini said.

Obama volunteers also asked people if they had a plan to vote and if not, to make one, specifying a time, according to Stephen Shaw, a retired cancer researcher who knocked on doors in Nevada and Virginia in the days before the election. “One thing we’d say is that we know that when people have a plan, voting goes more smoothly,” he said.[...]

Another technique some volunteers said they used was to inform supporters that others in their neighborhood were planning to vote. Again, recent research shows that this kind of message is much more likely to prompt people to vote than traditional campaign literature that emphasizes the negative — that many neighbors did not vote and thus lost an opportunity to make a difference.

This kind of approach trades on a human instinct to conform to social norms, psychologists say. In another well-known experiment, Dr. Cialdini and two colleagues tested how effective different messages were in getting hotel guests to reuse towels. The message “the majority of guests reuse their towels” prompted a 29 percent increase in reuse, compared with the usual message about helping the environment. The message “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” resulted in a 41 percent increase, he said.

This apparent reliance on a scientific model of human behavior was, apparently, unprecedented. The scientists who the Obama campaign informally consulted with on this approach had offered their services to the Kerry campaign in 2004 and were rebuffed. A few Senators had met with them about using their ideas, but nothing concrete had emerged. However, those involved told the Times that they did see traces of their own ideas reflected in the Obama campaign's actual strategy:

The researchers said they weren’t told which of their ideas were put to use, or how. But sometimes they got hints. Dr. Fiske, the Princeton psychologist, said she received a generic, mass-market e-mail from the Obama campaign before the election.

“It said, ‘People do things when they make plans to do them; what’s your plan?’ ” Dr. Fiske said. “How about that?”

This raises the question - how far will campaigns be able to go in psychologically manipulating their voters in the future? And in a world where science can predict the best tools to maximize turnout and/or effectiveness, what other factors could determine victory?

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