For the last couple of weeks, pundits have been analyzing why Obama won the 2012 election, not to mention how Romney’s strategies led to a loss. One area that has received scant attention is the use of behavioral science and consumer persuasion techniques in the Obama campaign.
A group that calls itself “COBS,” for “consortium of behavioral scientists,” was one part of Obama’s winning marketing strategy. Benedict Carey of the New York Times reports that a “dream team” of behavior researchers offered input and even helped create scripts for the Obama campaign.
The team was organized by Craig Fox, a behavioral economist at UCLA. It included experts like Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus at Arizona State University and author of the social science classic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and the University of Chicago‘s Richard Thaler, coauthor of Nudge.
One example of applied research in the Obama campaign drew on technique well-documented by Cialdini – the power of a written commitment to alter behavior:
Simply identifying a person as a voter, as many volunteers did — “Mr. Jones, we know you have voted in the past” — acts as a subtle prompt to future voting, said Dr. Cialdini, a foundational figure in the science of persuasion. “People want to be congruent with what they have committed to in the past, especially if that commitment is public,” he said.
Many volunteers also asked would-be voters if they would sign an informal commitment to vote, a card with the president’s picture on it. This small, voluntary agreement amplifies the likelihood that the person will follow through, research has found.
Another research-based technique was not to simply deny negative or false rumors. It’s counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that denying misinformation can actually strengthen its credibility over time. For example, countering “Obama is a Muslim” with “No, President Obama is not a Muslim” increases the “Obama – Muslim” association by repetition. Instead, the campaign was advised to simply affirm that Obama is a Christian.
The article quotes Todd Rogers of the Kennedy School of government at Harvard, “In the way it used research, this was a campaign like no other.” In the past, Rogers said, campaigns were more driven by intuition and advice from political gurus.