As election nears, Democratic and Republican strategists agree: behavioral science is powerful

  • By Barry Fischer
  • November 2, 2012

In their final push to get out the vote, groups from across the political spectrum are taking a page out of the behavioral science playbook: they are using the concept of “social pressure” to encourage higher turnout on election day.

Their idea is that citizens are more likely to vote if they know that their neighbors are voting too. This approach, which directly stems from human psychology concepts like “peer influence” and “social norms,” has become a proven tool to motivate behavior change.

Opower has been pioneering a social-norms approach for the last five years, through the “neighbor comparisons” that we provide as part of our home energy reporting programs. In particular, we have consistently found that when people find out that many of their neighbors are energy efficient, they often respond by taking energy-efficient actions of their own. The Opower approach, which was detailed in a recent academic paper, has unleashed nearly 2 terawatt-hours of residential energy savings  — approximately equivalent to $200 million of savings on people’s energy bills.

Likewise, the social-norms approach is increasingly being deployed in the political realm, especially following a large-scale field experiment conducted during the 2006 elections in Michigan.  That landmark study, administered by the political scientist Alan Gerber, suggested that social-norms campaigns can significantly increase voter turnout.

And so in the past month, a range of political organizations — including the liberal group MoveOn.org, the conservative group Americans for Limited Government, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice  — have been mailing out tens of millions of “Voter Report Cards,” which compare the recipient’s historical voter turnout with their neighborhood’s average turnout rate. Below is an example of one such recent mailing, received by a friend of mine. Other mailings, which are reportedly causing a stir in North Carolina, provide even more specificity about neighbors’ yearly voting activity.

Look familiar? The Voter Report Card appears simply to be a political-themed version of Opower’s long-running Home Energy Report.

Voter Report Cards and Home Energy Reports demonstrate how social context and comparison can shape people’s behavior. And as the intersection of behavioral science and data analytics continues to blossom across society (and especially in politics, as chronicled by journalist Sasha Issenberg in his new book, The Victory Lab), we expect to see broader applications of the data-driven neighbor comparisons that Opower has proven effective.

About Outlier

Outlier explores trends in how people are using energy in the US and around the world. Pulling from an unprecedented (and still growing) amount of energy data—currently drawn from 50 million homes—Opower crunches energy-use information from more than 90 utility partners every day, and cross-references that with weather, household, and demographic information to produce compelling analyses in the Outlier series.