To Vote or Not to Vote?


According to the U.S. Elections project, 49.2% of the eligible voting population cast a ballot last November, marking the highest recorded turnout for a U.S. midterm election since 1914.[1]Yet, despite this recent peak, the United States still has an abysmally low turnout record compared to the rest of the democratic world. While only 58% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 U.S., other developed nations saw significantly higher turnout in recent national elections. In France, for example, 67.9% of the voting-age population participated in the most recent national election, and in South Korea, 77.9% participated in the 2017 national elections.[2] So, what can we civically-minded individuals do to increase turnout? Well, behavioral economics offers some answers. By understanding the psychology of decision-making, candidates and politically engaged individuals can design more effective messages to get constituents and friends out to vote.

What is Framing?

Traditional economic theory assumes people are perfectly rational, making fully-informed choices across different environments in order to maximize expected utility. However, a host of psychologically-informed research on decision-making — and, perhaps, our own intuition — dispels this model of homo economicus. Rather, our decisions are subject to any number of cognitive and environmental limitations.

One foundational example of such a limitation is that how information is framed plays an outsized role on our perception of that information (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).[3] Building on their earlier model of prospect theory — which, as detailed below, demonstrated the relative value that people place on losses and gains, and their preferences for risky behavior over both — Kahneman and Tversky went on to show that the same question could elicit very different responses depending on whether it is framed with a focus on losses or gains.

Consider the following example: in one famous study, participants chose between two different programs designed to treat 600 people affected by a deadly disease. Treatment A was predicted to save 200 people, whereas treatment B predicted a 33% chance that everyone would be saved and a 66% chance that nobody would be saved. One group of participants was presented with the two treatments framed positively, i.e. how many people would be saved, and a second group was presented with those same treatments framed negatively, i.e. how many people would die. Interestingly, although the groups were presented with logically equivalent options, A was chosen by 72% of participants when it was presented positively (“saves 200 lives”) dropping to only 22% when the same choice was presented negatively (“400 people will die”).[4] Put simply, people demonstrate inconsistent preferences regarding the same outcome depending on how that outcome is framed.

How does framing work in real life?

Researchers have found that this framing effect holds true in settings ranging from personal finance, to policy, to healthcare. Patients, for example, are often faced with important decisions, such as whether to get a colonoscopy, whether to go to the dentist for a biannual check-up and whether to apply sunscreen to prevent sunburn. To encourage people to engage in these healthy behaviors, providers can emphasize the positive outcomes of engaging in the behavior (gain-framing), or on the negative outcomes from not engaging in the behavior (loss-framing). Prospect theory offers predictions about which frame will be more effective.

The theory posits that framing affects people’s aversion or penchant for risk. While “risk” in Kahneman and Tversky’s study involved a probability that a particular outcome would occur, psychologists have expanded that definition, applying prospect theory to situations where a decision carries different levels of “risk” depending on the extent to which it can result in an unpleasant outcome.[5] For example, choosing to get a cancer screening can be “risky” because one runs the risk of getting extremely unpleasant information (that one has cancer). According to prospect theory, people should become more risk-seeking (i.e. more likely to get a screening) when the decision is framed in terms of losses. This is exactly what has been borne out in the research.

In one study, women were assigned to view either gain-framed videos emphasizing the benefits of getting a mammography, or loss-framed videos that emphasized the risks of not obtaining a mammography.[6] Although the two videos were factually equivalent, women who viewed the loss-framed message were more likely to obtain a mammogram within 12 months of the intervention, compared to those who saw the gain-framed message.

In contrast, prevention behaviors, like applying sunscreen, are engaged in to avoid the onset of an illness. Since the primary risk with prevention behaviors is with not taking action, prospect theory predicts that gain-framed appeals would be more effective.[7] That is, people would become more risk-averse when the message is framed as a gain and would therefore be more likely to try to avoid the risk of skin cancer. In one effort to demonstrate this, researchers distributed gain and loss-framed brochures about skin cancer to beachgoers and offered them a chance to get free samples of sunscreen. Those who had received the gain-framed brochure were more likely to seek out the free sample than those who had been given the loss-framed brochure.[8]

Together, these results suggest that framing can substantively affect people’s decisions about whether or not to engage in particular health-promoting behaviors.

Can careful framing drive voter turnout?

Just as framing effects have applied to get people to screen for cancer, so too can they be applied to get people to vote.  Just as getting a health screening can be seen as a “risk,” so voting can, for some individuals, be a risk. Particularly for first-time voters — including students who have just reached the voting age or individuals who have simply never voted — the barrier to voting is the possibility (or “risk”) of having to wait in line for hours or of putting yourself into an unknown situation. In one survey, over ten percent of unregistered individuals decided to not vote because they thought it was “difficult to vote” or because they were “too busy.”[9] For these individuals, prospect theory dictates that loss-framed messages may be more effective than gain-framed messages.

Thus, when targeting people who have never voted, perhaps candidates (or PSAs) should focus their statements on the potential losses that could occur if those individuals do not vote. For example, a Democratic candidate trying to encourage liberal first-time voters to vote may create a campaign message that states: “without your vote, we could lose the possibility of gaining control of the House.” Prospect theory suggests this could be more effective than a logically equivalent message that states “with your vote, we could gain control of the House.”

For some people, though, the barrier to voting is not that the act of voting is itself a “risk” but it is that they simply feel that their vote will not count. For these individuals, risk comes into play if the potential voter can be convinced that without their vote, their preferred candidate risks losing the election. In other words, just how NOT applying sunscreen poses a risk of getting skin cancer, the risk for these individuals is that not voting poses a risk that their candidate will not win. For these individuals, prospect theory suggests that a message focused on gains would be more apt.

So What?

It’s important to note that there are a variety of reasons that more than half of the U.S. population does not vote.  Designing a gain versus loss-framed message is immaterial for the thousands of individuals who cannot vote because they have a criminal conviction. Only policy changes that reverse felony disenfranchisement can restore the right to vote for some people.

But, for many of us, the decision to vote can be influenced by a candidate’s message. And as long as we continue being the hopelessly irrational humans that we are, framing can shape the decision of whether we exercise our constitutional right to vote.

[1] : Bach, Natasha. “Americans Turned Out to Vote in the Midterms at a Level Not Seen in More Than a Century.” Fortune. Last modified November 14, 2018.
[2] Haltiwanger, John. “US Voter Turnout Was Way Up in the 2018 Midterms, but It Still Lags Behind Most Developed Countries’.” Business Insider. Last modified November 13, 2018.
[3] Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky. “Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk.” In Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I, pp. 99-127. 2013.
[4] Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice.” science 211, no. 4481 (1981): 453-458.
[5] Rothman, Alexander J., Roger D. Bartels, Jhon Wlaschin, and Peter Salovey. “The strategic use of gain-and loss-framed messages to promote healthy behavior: How theory can inform practice.” Journal of communication 56, no. suppl_1 (2006): S202-S220.
[6] Banks, Sara M., Peter Salovey, Susan Greener, Alexander J. Rothman, Anne Moyer, John Beauvais, and Elissa Epel. “The effects of message framing on mammography utilization.” Health psychology 14, no. 2 (1995): 178.
[7] Rothman, Alexander J., Roger D. Bartels, Jhon Wlaschin, and Peter Salovey. “The strategic use of gain-and loss-framed messages to promote healthy behavior: How theory can inform practice.” Journal of communication 56, no. suppl_1 (2006): S202-S220.
[8] Detweiler, Jerusha B., Brian T. Bedell, Peter Salovey, Emily Pronin, and Alexander J. Rothman. “Message framing and sunscreen use: gain-framed messages motivate beach-goers.” Health Psychology 18, no. 2 (1999): 189.
[9]. “Poll: Non-Voters Cite “Corrupt System” As Reason for Opting Out – Suffolk University.” Suffolk University in Boston – Suffolk University. Last modified April 23, 2018.

Pooja Salhotra
About Pooja Salhotra:

Pooja received her bachelor’s degree from Yale University, where she studied psychology and economics and conducted behavioral economics research in the Yale Decision Neuroscience Lab. Pooja is fascinated by cognitive biases in decision-making, particularly in those decisions that impact social justice and economic equality. Pooja is currently a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School, and she is interested in exploring how public policy can be used as a tool to help individuals and groups make decisions that ultimately improve social welfare.