President Obama's re-election team has already been lauded for its mastery of data and organization, but a feature in today's The New York Times looks at another secret, and more subtle, weapon: Behavioral science. Reporter Benedict Carey talks to some of the members of the "COBS" team, an informal group of unpaid advisers who shared their knowledge on the latest academic research with the campaign, including theories on how to influence the public's knowledge and behavior.
Publicly, the group—which it gave itself the name of "consortium of behavioral scientists"—were just friendly volunteers offering advice. None of the social scientists and psychologists who took part in the discussions actually worked for the campaign, but it's clear that their ideas were appreciated and taken seriously by campaign strategists who deployed their best techniques in advertisements and voter mobilization efforts.
The tricks are subtle and don't work on everyone, but in the all-important ground game every little bit helps. That's why many of the techniques are simply about getting people who already like you to do something about it. Among the insights that were shared are the fact the people like conform to social norms, both in their community and their own past behavior. So telling voters that their neighbors have already voted or reminding them about their previous support of a candidate, makes those voters more likely to take action. Volunteers might ask people if they've made a plan for voting on Election Day, because studies show that creating even a simple plan increases the chances that a person will follow through. Research has also shown that it's better to combat a negative story by promoting a different, more positive trait. For example, instead of constantly denying the rumors that the President is a Muslim, his campaign instead reminds people that he is Christian.
The campaign wouldn't admit to using any of the knowledge that was shared—not even with the academics who shared it—but there's no doubt that the Obama camp took the messages to heart and used some of them to their advantage in swing states. The group of academics said they were ignored by previous Democratic campaigns (as well as Mitt Romney's), but we suspect that psychology departments across the country will be the ones on the receiving end of phone calls in the next four years.