Drawing voters to the polls tomorrow, researchers say, may be as easy as asking them to picture themselves voting.


Ohio State University study found that people were more likely to vote in the 2004 presidential election after visualizing themselves voting from the perspective of an outside observer.

In a study conducted online the night before the 2004 election, 146 Ohio State University undergraduates were told to imagine themselves voting from one of two perspectives.  Some saw themselves as a third party would—as if they were watching a movie of themselves going to the polls. Others were told to use a first-person perspective—as if they were experiencing voting through their own eyes.

Participants then answered questions about the likelihood that they would vote in the election and how important they considered doing so to be. Several weeks later, researchers asked participants whether or not they had voted.

The study found that 90 percent of those who had visualized themselves from an outsider’s perspective reported voting, while only 72 percent of those who imagined voting from a first-person perspective did. Additionally, those who used the third-person perspective reported feeling more strongly about the importance of voting.  The results were similar among George W. Bush and John Kerry supporters.

“Literally picturing yourself from an outside perspective can make a difference,” said Lisa Libby, a social psychologist at Ohio State and the lead author of the study, which will be published in Psychological Science next year. “It’s just a simple thing, and it seems like that’s all you’d have to do.”

The technique works, Libby explained, because when people imagine themselves from a third-person perspective, they picture themselves as others see them. They become concerned with how their actions look and become likelier to engage in behaviors that are socially valued—such as voting. First-person visualizers, on the other hands, can imagine the steps involved in voting, but do not see themselves as outsiders would. The focus on how one looks to others is key to the motivating effect observed in the study, Libby said.

Ohio was a hotly contested swing state in the 2004 election, and it saw an unprecedented number of campaigns to boost voter turnout. The impact of visualization amidst numerous voter mobilization campaigns is particularly noteworthy, Libby said.

This visualization technique could offer an easy, low-cost way to increase voter participation, said Gavan Fitzsimons, a consumer psychologist at Duke University.

“One of the big goals in any election is to ‘get out the vote.’ And this seems like a very innocuous way to do so,” Fitzsimons said.

Billboards prompting passersby to “Picture yourself going to the polls on Tuesday” could make a real difference in voter turnout, Libby said.

The study did not include a control group to examine voter turnout among those who did not visualize anything at all.

Originally published November 5, 2006


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