How social norms increased voting intentions by 7%

Intervention · 


The 2020 United States presidential election had the highest voter turnout rate in recent American history, with 66.7% of the voting-eligible population casting a vote, up by approximately 8% from the 2016 presidential election.1,2 It’s common to constantly hear about voter turnout in the days leading up to an election. To figure out how the social norms associated with news of high or low voter turnout affects people’s voting intentions, researchers conducted two get-out-to-vote field experiments.3 Participants were selected and contacted at random from the registered voters list prior to the 2005 New Jersey and 2006 California gubernatorial elections. One of either high turnout or low turnout scripts were presented to participants on the phone and a post-message survey asked the participant’s intention to vote based on the turnout. The results found that participants that received the high turnout scripts were 7% more likely to report a 100% probability of voting compared to participants that received a low turnout script. 


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Rating: 5/5 (Significant results; diverse samples, replication of the study)

The impact of voter turnout messages on voting intentions
Presented a message of expecting a low voter turnout 69% of respondents were 100% likely to vote after hearing the message
Presented a message of expecting a high voter turnout  76.3% (7% increase) of the respondents were 100% likely to vote after hearing the message

Key Concepts

Descriptive social norms: The standard behaviors people commonly perform in a given situation. In many cases, descriptive social norms are seen to encourage an individual to act according to how others behave.

The bandwagon effect: A cognitive bias where people adjust their behavior according to what is popular and how the majority population is acting.

The Problem

Counterintuitive voting behaviors

There is uncertainty associated with what exactly drives voting behavior, and how news of high or low voter turnout influences voting intentions. If an individual's voting behavior is influenced by economic reasoning, the news of low voter turnout would likely motivate them to cast a vote. This is because every vote has a greater chance of swaying the balance when fewer people vote, compared to a dilution in an individual's voting power when more people participate in voting. 

While this view on voting behavior is intuitive, many political experts believe that news of low voter turnout does not promote an increase in voting at a larger scale. Instead, descriptive social norms with news of high voting turnout are thought to be a stronger influencing agent.

Social norms in a voting context

Although social norms have been extensively studied within a variety of contexts, the degree of influence that social norms hold across different scenarios is not constant or predictable. Since voting behavior has not been studied enough under the lens of social norms, the results of the intervention prior to the study were uncertain. 


Contacting registered voters

Participants were randomly chosen from the registered voters list and were contacted on the phone numbers provided. The calls were made through The Clinton Group, an organization known for calling on days leading up to elections. The respondents were presented with a naturalistic get-out-to-vote script; the script highlighted either a high or low turnout for the upcoming election. Both scripts were similar in length and format. Investigators hypothesized that if descriptive social norms had a strong influence over the respondents’ voting behavior, hearing the high turnout script would make them likelier to vote.

Post-message surveys

Respondents were asked to participate in a short survey after the turnout scripts were completed. For the New Jersey experiment, respondents were asked one of two questions; how likely it was that they would vote, or what’s their estimation of the probability of them voting. These questions, respectively, were referred to as the standard vote intention question and probability vote intention question. 

Respondents involved in the California experiment had a lengthier post-message survey. There were two versions of the survey, to which respondents were randomly assigned. Version A of the survey first asked the respondents to answer the standard vote intention question, and were then asked a series of questions about the respondent’s views on the importance of voting, difficulties associated with voting, the closeness of the election results, and their expectation of the voter turnout. Version B of the survey asked the same questions, but with the series of questions asked before the standard vote intention question. 

The EAST Framework

The researchers sought to understand whether people’s voting intention changed in response to news of high or low voter turnout by using descriptive social norms, and thus used the EAST Framework. This framework consists of four key ideas that guide the design and execution of a policy or study. The intervention must be Easy to implement; be Attractive to get a hold of and retain attention; must appeal to Social values and opinions; be Timely in execution to maximize reception. 

In designing this study, the experimenters contacted participants from the Easily accessible voter registration information, Attracted the responders’ attention by providing relevant statistics on expected voter turnout, interacted in a Socially desirable manner with a post-message survey, and contacted participants in a Timely manner in the days leading up to the upcoming election. 

Results and Applications

Descriptive social norms increased voting intentions

The results of this study close the gap of understanding associated with descriptive social norms in voting behavior. The experimenters found that respondents that were presented with the high turnout scripts had a significantly higher intention to vote compared to those that heard the low turnout script; the results were consistent for both the New Jersey and California experiments. Specifically, when asked their probability to vote, those that heard the high turnout script were 7% more likely to answer with a 100% probability of voting. When asked the standard turnout question, respondents from New Jersey and California that received the high turnout scripts were 5.5% and 2.7% more likely to be 'absolutely certain' to vote compared to the respondents that received the low turnout scripts.

It is also important to note that the advantage of high turnout script was concentrated within respondents with prior infrequent turnout records. The high turnout scripts, therefore, were more likely to motivate occasional voters and those that are on the fence on whether to vote. Furthermore, the high and low turnout scripts did not have a significant influence among frequent voters.

Application in get-out-to-vote campaigns

Get-out-to-vote campaigns are commonly organized in days leading up to an election in efforts to motivate people to vote. The target of these campaigns are primarily the occasional and infrequent voters, so the results of this study are directly applicable to designing more effective campaigns. This study shows that campaigns should highlight a social norm of high turnouts, since this works best to encourage infrequent voters to participate. 

Descriptive social norms are effective in influencing a desired behavior, and harnessing them is an effective strategy useful to many industries. 

Public Policy  Political parties often use descriptive social norms to their advantage in rallying public support for implementing new policies. In many instances, celebrities and popular influencers are asked for endorsements and to promote certain policies to influence a greater degree of support.
Development & Social Protection Similar to designing and implementing policies, taking social norms into consideration while working towards developing a more equitable and inclusive environment can maximize impact and effectiveness.
Retail & Consumer The majority of retail companies have to keep up with new trends and social norms to develop effective marketing strategies. More so, many retail companies within the cosmetics and fashion industry, for example, constantly highlight new social norms in efforts to attract consumers to new products. 


  • The intervention motivated many infrequent and occasional voters to strongly consider participating in the upcoming gubernatorial election. 
  • The sample size was large, with diversity in participants for both experiments.
  • The experiment was replicated for the 2006 California election following the initial 2005 New Jersey experiment.

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
There was a significant number of infrequent voters that were motivated to vote after hearing the high turnout script
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
No personal information of the participants was disclosed, neither were their individual survey answers
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Room for improvement
The intervention examined the respondents’ intention to vote prior to the election but did not follow up to ask if they actually voted. 

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
The respondents were not obliged to answer the phone call. Answering the post-message survey was also voluntary
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
The turnout scripts were not designed to force a certain reaction, and the answers to the post-message survey questions were based on the respondents’ judgment and the decision of whether or not to vote remained completely up to the participants.
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Not applicable
The number of choices stayed the same

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
The post-message survey in the California experiment asked about the respondent’s views on the importance of voting and any difficulties associated with the voting process
Are the participants diverse?
The participant demographics were not disclosed but they were mentioned to be diverse
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
Room for improvement
Though there is no direct discussion of how the intervention affects equitable causes, an increased intention to participate in voting can help more people vote for candidates that stand for causes representative of voter needs.

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  1. Lindsay, J. M. (2020, December 15). The 2020 Election by the Numbers. Council on Foreign Relations. 
  2. United States Election Project. (2018, September 5). 2016 November General Election Turnout Rates. United States Election Project. 
  3. Gerber, A. S., & Rogers, T. (2009). Descriptive Social Norms and Motivation to Vote: Everybody’s Voting and so Should You. The Journal of Politics, 71(1), 178-191.
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