Psychology of proposition 29

At the recent science of doing good event at the stanford centre for social innovation Todd Rogers gave a fascinating talk on the psychology of voter turnout. Marguerite Rigoglioso gives a good overview on the CSI site which is well worth a read. Getting the vote out is not just an important issue for presidential candidates and political parties, it is fundamental to the state earning legitimacy (collective trust) from society. If people don’t participate in the electoral process – especially if there is a group effect – then those people and groups are effectively disempowered.

Rogers, in his talk, gave a whole range of useful and simple ideas for getting the vote out (from getting potential voters to commit to a plan to vote, to emphasising a positive norm around voting in a state) However, I was especially interested in a specific study from the 2010 election that Rogers cited looking at the importance of personal relevance and accountability. Rigoglioso notes this study in her post: researchers sent one group of potential voters a psychologically sophisticated mailing encouraging them to vote. Another group received the same mailing, plus in the top right corner a box saying: “We may call you after the election to talk about your voting experience.” Adding that box increased the effectiveness of the mailing in terms of the voting it stimulated by almost half.

That’s a pretty impressive impact! On June 5th voters in California will be asked to make cigarettes more expensive. As outlined in the Examiner today Proposition 29, would raise the state’s excise tax on a pack of cigarettes from 87 cents to $1.87, with the revenue to go toward research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. It would go into effect in October and is expected to raise about $735 million in the first year. That is a lot of money, yet I’m not convinced of the personal relevance is being maximised in the design of this proposition. There are more innovative designs of such a fund that could more actively engage and interest society in this proposition – designs which would give the state more legitimacy for this intervention.

Firstly, rather than the $735m going to cancer research by default (which is effectively a californian subsidy for federal & overseas cancer research programs), the fund could be used as a challenge fund for Californian citizens to do something to enhance social bonds and relationships in their own neighbourhoods. Individuals, families, blocs or whole neighbourhoods could collaboratively bid for some seed funding to set up some community activities. Surely this would be more salient to the everyday lives of California, especially those that are at less risk of lung cancer because they don’t smoke. However if Californians don’t bid for the bucks, and there is a large pot of money left over then that – by default – could go cancer research programs. So effectively Californians get first choice on spending, but if society doesn’t actively step up to the challenge by default the unused money could then go to the federal and overseas cancer research programs – a pretty good incentive for Californian communities to get active with their bids then!

Secondly on the campaign mail outs currently encouraging Californians to support proposition, there could be a box in the top right hand corner saying “We may call you after the election to talk about your voting experience and your priorities for spending the $735m fund to strengthen your community.” Based on Rogers research, this should both encourage more people to vote for the proposition as well as shift citizens perception from being a passive recipient of the newly generated fund to an active player in how the funds are spent to strengthen bonds and relationships in their community. Such a re-think of the design of proposition 29, together with a few tweaks to the wording of the campaign mail outs, has the potential to significantly strengthen Californian society. Let’s hope the State reads Rogers research soon!

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