Analysis: 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.