Mark Blumenthal | April 2, 2009
Topics: Barack Obama , Behavioral Scientists
We've blogged some about the behind the scenes work done by Democratic campaigns in 2008, particularly the creation of the Analyst Institute and its applications of the experimental work of Yale's Alan Gerber and Donald Green on the effectiveness of campaign techniques. But this report from Time's Michael Grunwald (via Mike Allen via Ben Smith) adds a whole new level of intrigue:
SCOOP/THE BIG IDEA - Michael Grunwald of Time, "How Obama Is Using The Science of Change: It's more than a campaign slogan. Inside the White House's plan to employ behavioral economics to promote its agenda--and fundamentally alter the way Americans live: Two weeks before election Day, Barack Obama's campaign was mobilizing millions of supporters; it was a bit late to start rewriting get-out-the-vote (GOTV) scripts. 'BUT, BUT, BUT,' field director Mike Moffo wrote to Obama's GOTV operatives nationwide, 'What if I told you a world-famous team of genius scientists, psychologists and economists wrote down the best techniques for GOTV scripting?!?! Would you be interested in at least taking a look? Of course you would!!' Moffo then passed along guidelines and a sample script from the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, a secret advisory group of 29 of the nation's leading behaviorists. The key guideline was a simple message: 'A Record Turnout Is Expected.' That's because studies by psychologist Robert Cialdini and other group members had found that the most powerful motivator for hotel guests to reuse towels, national-park visitors to stay on marked trails and citizens to vote is the suggestion that everyone is doing it. 'People want to do what they think others will do,' says Cialdini, author of the best seller 'Influence.' 'The Obama campaign really got that.'
"The existence of this behavioral dream team--which also included best-selling authors Dan Ariely of MIT (Predictably Irrational) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago (Nudge) as well as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton--has never been publicly disclosed, even though its members gave Obama white papers on messaging, fundraising and rumor control as well as voter mobilization. All their proposals--among them the famous online fundraising lotteries that gave small donors a chance to win face time with Obama--came with footnotes to peer-reviewed academic research. ... President Obama is still relying on behavioral science. But now his Administration is using it to try to transform the country. Because when you know what makes people tick, it's a lot easier to help them change.
The research in question sounds like less experiments directly geared toward politics (the sort of thing Gerber and Green do) than advice offered from a group of economists and behavioral scientists grounded in the work they have done in other areas. Still, very interesting and the first I've heard of it.
Update: One who knows tells me this project was about more than offering advice. The "dream team" helped design experiments conducted by the Obama campaign that ultimately guided various tactics, including the most effective media used to reach younger voters.
Update 2: Grunwald's article is now posted online.