UCI News

Will you cast a presidential ballot on Nov. 8?

UCI-led study finds questions highly effective in influencing behavior

June 8, 2016
Will you cast a presidential ballot on Nov. 8?

Irvine, Calif., June 8, 2016 – As presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump go head-to-head in the presidential race, much of their energy is directed at getting supporters to the polls this fall. Research published this month shows that this may be as simple as asking them: “Will you vote on Nov. 8?”

And Eric Spangenberg, dean of The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, said that campaigns should start asking the question now.

“The ‘question-behavior effect’ is really quite simple,” said Spangenberg, lead author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. “What we found is that if people are asked a question – typically regarding a socially normative behavior – they are more likely to act consistently with the social norm than someone merely reminded or encouraged to engage in the behavior.”

The strongest explanation for this is the “consistency-based theory,” he said: “Being confronted with a question such as ‘Will you vote in Tuesday’s election?’ forces nonvoters to reflect on the times when maybe their preferred candidate lost, and that doesn’t feel good.

“This mental state of discomfort is referred to as cognitive dissonance. There’s one clear way to eliminate this particular discomfort, and that’s to get out and vote. It’s either that or try to convince oneself that voting isn’t very important.”

Spangenberg and colleagues from the State University of New York at Albany, the University of Idaho and Washington State University sought to document the basic nature of the question-behavior effect and understand how to practically implement it in a variety of contexts.

They analyzed nearly 40 years of research involving 104 studies and more than 2 million participants. Their work is the most rigorous and comprehensive investigation to date of the question-behavior phenomenon.

It concludes that asking people about a target behavior can produce consistent, significant changes in behavior and has many socially normative applications beyond voting, such as promoting exercise, reducing gender stereotypes and dissuading students from cheating on exams.

The study also suggests the best ways to pose these queries. Computer or pencil-and-paper surveys carry the most influential punch, but face-to-face contact, telephone calls and billboard advertising also work.

“The timing is good for presidential campaigns to get started raising questions,” Spangenberg said. “If strategically employed, the question-behavior technique could encourage turnout by targeted members of the electorate come November.”

But he added one caveat: “With a behavior like voting, it’s important for campaigns to approach only their supporters. If opposition voters are queried, the question-behavior effect could benefit the other side.”

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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