Borrowing a page familiar to football coaches and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen all over, President Barack Obama’s successful 2012 presidential campaign utilized a host of psychological strategies to subconsciously motivate voters, particularly at the grassroots level.
The New York Times reports that the Obama campaign secretly engaged a group of outside, unpaid psychology professors to provide the persuasive tactics. This crackerjack group of shrinks — a “dream team,” said one of them, according to The Times — included professors from America’s finest universities, such as Princeton, the University of Chicago, UCLA and Columbia.
The advisers — most of them specialized behavioral scientists who work in academia — are crowing about their efforts after Obama’s victory.
“It’s a big change for a culture that historically has relied on consultants, experts and guru-like intuition,” said Todd Rogers, a psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, according to The Times.
The coterie of shrinks offered recommendations on how to respond to rumors, such as the oft-repeated assertion that Obama is a closet Muslim. There was also plenty of advice on how to demonize Mitt Romney effectively in advertisements and how to maximize get-out-the-vote efforts.
When asked, officials from Obama’s campaign neither confirmed nor denied the use of psychological ploys on voters.
The psychologists who donated their time and expertise to the campaign suggested ideas based on decades of psychological research. They only spoke in general terms about their contributions, though, reportedly because of the nondisclosure agreements they signed.
One of the psychologists explained to The Times that the group focused on “little things that can make a difference” in voter behavior.
For example, the psychologists advised the Obama campaign that denying an undesirable rumor (“I am not a witch”) is probably the worst thing a candidate can do. The result is that people mainly remember precisely the association the candidate wanted to avoid.
The Obama campaign took this advice concerning the rumor that the president is, in fact, a Muslim. Instead of denying that claim, the campaign simply declared that Obama is a Christian.
The campaign also integrated recommendations from the elite psychologists into its get-out-the-vote efforts during the last weeks of the campaign. The scripts that were used by campaign volunteers who knocked on doors in swing states reportedly included sophisticated conditioning techniques.
A typical script called for volunteers to classify people as voters, for instance. They’d say, “Mr. Jones, we know you have voted in the past,” reports The Times. Volunteers appealed to voters to make specific plans to vote. They also asked potential voters to declare for Obama by signing a card with a picture of Obama on it.
But signing the Obama-emblazoned card had a subtle purpose. It was what psychologists call the “foot-in-the-door” technique. Research has shown that people who make such symbolic agreements are more likely to follow through on some bigger commitment later.
One of the Obama campaign’s behavioral science advisers, Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, described a famous Stanford experiment concerning the same technique. Researchers asked two groups of people to put a huge, unsightly sign in their yards that read “DRIVE CAREFULLY.”
The researchers asked one group cold, with little success. However, they first asked members of the other group to place a small sign in their windows proclaiming the benefits of safe driving. Members of this second group were substantially more likely to accept the big, ugly signs in their yards.
Members of the so-called “Dream Team” told The Times that, to their knowledge, no Republicans received any such free advice from academic elites about how to subconsciously influence voter behavior.
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign did not respond to reporters from The Times.