Voting is an act of altruism. When you vote, you are taking your personal time and effort to advance the collective good, without any guarantee of personal reward—the very heart of what it means to be altruistic.
For many, voting is a civic duty. However, in the United States, there is a large contingent of people who don’t vote, even in presidential elections. Voting can be particularly low in midterm elections—which are coming up on November 6—where the number of nonvoters often exceeds voters.
Political psychology researchers have been studying what encourages voting behavior, hoping to create interventions that might increase voting in the general public. “Because voting is a prosocial behavior, the kinds of things that should stimulate other types of prosocial behavior should have similar impacts on voting,” says Costas Panagopoulos of Northeastern University.
Studies by Panagopoulos and others suggest that appealing to our altruistic, “prosocial” natures—our concern for other people and our desire to contribute toward the greater good of society—could drive more democratic participation.
How gratitude impacts voting
In one study, Panagopoulos sent postcards to a subset of random voters before a special election in New York and before a gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The postcards contained either a message encouraging people to vote or a message thanking them for having voted in a recent election. Then, he compared voting percentages for those two groups to a control group who received no postcards.
His findings showed that voters receiving the gratitude postcard voted significantly more—two to three percentage points more—than those not receiving postcards. Those receiving reminders were somewhere in the middle, voting only slightly more often than the control group. This held true whether or not the recipients tended to vote regularly or only sparingly, including voters from groups who tend to vote less frequently, in general—like Latinos and single women.
Why would this be?
“Making people feel good by reinforcing the notion that society is grateful for their participation in the political process reminds people that they have a role to play and reinforces their willingness to be responsive,” says Panagopoulos.
Though the increase might seem inconsequential, says Panagopoulos, elections are won and lost within that margin. Even going door-to-door to get out the vote—a typical, resource-intensive strategy for increasing voter turnout—rarely increases voting by more than 8-10 percentage points, making a gratitude postcard a good investment.
“The fact that you can achieve almost a third of that with a single postcard mailing is pretty huge—it’s roughly five times the effect of a generic postcard mailer reminding someone to vote,” he says. “So, the expression of gratitude must be a pretty powerful way to raise turnout.”
Still, even with these results, Panagopoulos wanted to make sure that receiving thanks was the active ingredient—after all, the postcards implied that someone was paying attention to people’s voting behavior, and public scrutiny could have been a factor.
So, in another experiment, he sent postcards thanking people for political participation, in general—without reference to past voting—while others received either the thanks for voting or the reminder postcards used in the other experiments.
In the Georgia primary election that followed, Panagopoulos found that people who received the generic thank-you postcard were more likely to vote—as much or more so than people being specifically thanked for voting, and much more than those who got the simple reminders. To Panagopoulos, this confirms the idea that gratitude was key.
“The fact that the generic gratitude message was as effective, if not more effective, than the gratitude message with social pressure elements in it, suggests that what was really doing the work was the expression of gratitude and not any perceptions of surveillance or social pressure,” he says.
Other emotions that affect voting
Guilt, shame, and social pressure can certainly increase voting, studies find.
In one study, people who received information about their own voting behavior in the past seemed to increase their propensity to vote in an upcoming election. Another study found that people will vote more in an election when they see that people they are close to are voting, and that this behavior can spread through social networks.
These kinds of studies add to a body of research showing that our social relationships and emotions play a significant role in how we vote. For example, one study found that when people are told that they might be recognized for voting in a local newspaper or put on an honor roll of voters—to induce feelings of pride—they vote in higher numbers.
Alternatively, when people are warned that their name will be published in a local newspaper for not voting—to induce feelings of shame—this also increases voting. Shame seems to have even more impact than pride.
Still, feeling shame may have downsides that feeling pride wouldn’t, which perhaps makes a case for more positive incentives for voting, while still making use of social pressure tactics.
“People don’t want to have a reputation for being shirkers or for freeriding on the efforts of others,” says Panagopoulos. “But, even though it’s not as powerful as inducing shame, the effects of inducing pride are roughly similar to expressing gratitude.”
The future of voting psychology
Does that mean Panagopoulos has concerns about eliciting people’s emotions—particularly negative emotions—to drive voting? Only if it’s used to manipulate voters in a strategic way to benefit one campaign over another, he says, rather than for the greater good.
“Our goal is not to provide campaigns with tactics to either increase or decrease their turnout, but to show what kinds of things could stimulate people to get engaged in the political process,” he says.
Though there is some evidence that appealing to people’s better natures can increase voting, there is still much research to be done—particularly on how to engage people who tend not to vote at all. Panagopoulos says that researchers have only scratched the surface in understanding the motivations of voters and that “we have a long way to go before we understand psychological mechanisms better.”
He hopes that governments and organizations that champion voting will take the task of increasing voter participation seriously. Clearly, doing so would help to make our democracy stronger, he adds.
“Society has to send strong signals that when people engage in the political process, they will be recognized for that, and that as a society we are grateful to them,” he says. “Democracy functions best when more citizens participate.”