I found a postcard in our mailbox last week that was a textbook example of several behavioral economics and behavior change tactics. Its intention is to nudge people to vote more consistently, including in smaller local elections. The group sending the card, the Environmental Voter Project, urges voters to support politicians and policies for sustainability. It’s an interesting example of how some behavioral economics tactics might actually come to life in an intervention.
On the front, I see a few different behavior change elements:
- Normative feedback, reassuring the recipient that taking action will put him in good company with other Massachusetts voters
- Choice of response methods (mail postcard or sign up online), to better match recipient ability and preference; the UK’s Behavioural Insights team would refer to this as making the behavior “easy”
- What I’ll call a benign assumption–that failure to consistently vote is a function of forgetting rather than some other variable. This lessens the likelihood the recipient feels criticized for the behavior
- A clear explanation of what data was used to trigger the sending of this communication
The handwritten post-it note is a classic behavioral economics technique that can be surprisingly effective at getting people to pay attention to and comply with a message. For example, one recent study found that a handwritten note on a tax bill increased property tax payments in one North Carolina county (Gamble, 2017).
Hand-writing the recipient’s name in the return postcard combines the personal feel of the outreach with an added layer of expectation about exactly who this is for. (Side note: I was glad to see this because if the card had been meant for me I was not going to be happy. I’m an ardent voter.)
As for the main text, my guess is that it’s not targeted given that the Environmental Voter Project specifically supports sustainability-related issues. In this case, they serendipitously delivered a message that resonates with the people in my household. This type of message is still a good bet given that sustainability measures tend to poll well in Massachusetts. And in general, public good type messages have been found to increase odds of someone taking action (Hallsworth, List, Metcalfe, & Vlaev, 2017).
One of the cool things about behavioral economics interventions for governments, non-profits, and other non-commercial enterprises is that they tend to have an excellent return on investment (ROI). They combine:
- Relatively low-cost implementation
- High population reach
- Scalable methods
Even if the effect size of a given intervention is modest, thanks to the low cost of implementing it and the wide number of people it reaches, the overall benefit can be significant (Benartzi et al., 2017).
Update: Environmental Voter Project has published its initial results from this campaign and they are very positive! They report a 4.7% – 5.1% voter turnout lift among non-voting environmentalists.
Benartzi, S., et al. (2017). Should governments invest more in nudging? Psychological Science, first online June 5, 2017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617702501
Gamble, T. L. (2017). You really need to open this: Using behavioral economic nudges to increase property tax compliance. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10161/14929.
Hallsworth, M., List, J. A., Metcalfe, R. D., & Vlaev, I. (2017). The behavioralist as tax collector: Using natural field experiments to enhance tax compliance. Journal of Public Economics, 148, 14-31.
Service, O., et al. (2014). EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Retrieved from http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/publications/east-four-simple-ways-to-apply-behavioural-insights/.