The power of nouns – tiny word change increases voter turnout

By Ed Yong | July 18, 2011 3:00 pm

Countries around the world have tried many tactics to encourage people to vote, from easier access to polling stations to mandatory registration. But Christopher Bryan from Stanford University has found a startlingly simple weapon for increasing voter turnout – the noun. Through a simple linguistic tweak, he managed to increase the proportion of voters in two groups of Americans by at least 10 percentage points.

During the 2008 presidential election, Bryan recruited 34 Californians who were eligible to vote but hadn’t registered yet. They all completed a survey which, among other questions, asked them either “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” or “How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”

It was the tiniest of tweaks – the noun-focused “voter” versus the verb-focused “vote” – but it was a significant one. Around 88% of the noun group said they were very or extremely interested in registering to vote, compared to just 56% of the verb group.

In two later experiments, Bryan showed that these claims translate into actual votes. The day before the 2008 election, he sent his survey to 133 Californians who were registered to vote but hadn’t yet. After the election was over, Bryan used official state records to work out what his recruits had actually done. The results were clear: 82% of the people who read the “vote” question eventually filled in their ballots, compared to 96% of those who read the “be a voter” question.

Stark though these results are, the average age of the volunteers was 23. Perhaps at this young age, their voting behaviour is more malleable than you might expect for the general population. To address that, Bryan repeated his experiment by sending his survey to 214 people from New Jersey, who were registered to vote in the 2009 gubernatorial elections, but hadn’t done so.

This larger group had an average age of 54 and greater ethnic diversity. But they behaved in the same way as the younger Californians. Around 90% of the “be a voter” group eventually voted, compared to just 79% of the “vote” group. “[These] are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout,” says Bryan.

The effects are large, but they fit with the results of past studies. For example, people rate their preference as stronger if they describe them with nouns (“I’m a Shakespeare reader”) than with verbs (“I read Shakespeare”). And children will think that another child likes carrots more if she’s described as “a carrot eater” rather than “someone who eats carrots whenever she can”.

Bryan thinks that the subtle change from “vote” to “be a voter” plays off two psychological quirks. First, when we use predicate nouns to describe ourselves, we see the words as reflections of our essential qualities. This creates a far stronger impression than verbs do – it’s the difference which defining who we are, versus to what we do. As Bryan writes, “People may be more likely to vote when voting is represented as an expression of self – as symbolic of a person’s fundamental character – rather than as simply a behaviour.”

Second, when we use predicate nouns to describe future behaviour (“to be a voter”), we not only reflect on our qualities, but on the qualities of the people we could be. These words offer a vision of a future identity that’s up for grabs. And voting, regardless of whether people do it or not, is generally seen as positive and worthy – it’s something that people feel they should do. “Using noun-based wording to frame socially valued future behaviour allows individuals, by performing the behaviour, to assume the identity of a worthy person,” writes Bryan.

If this effect holds more generally, it may be a powerful way of motivating behaviour in a positive way. For example, it may be easier to help smokers who want to quit by encouraging them to “be a non-smoker” than telling them to “stop smoking”.

Bryan is working on such projects now. “I’ve begun to look at whether references to “being a healthy eater” as opposed to “eating healthy food” are an effective way to motivate people to make healthier food choices,” he says. “I’m also interested in how early in life people become conscious of and start managing their self-images in this way. I’ve been looking at whether preschool-age children are more helpful to an adult when that behaviour is referred to as “being a helper” than when it’s just called “helping”.”

But to Bryan, the biggest prize would be finding ways of encouraging greener behaviour. “The trick is coming up with the right noun,” he says. “To be effective, I think it has to describe an identity that people want to take on. Labels like “energy saver” or “environmentalist” just don’t feel desirable enough. One avenue we’ve begun to pursue involves referring to wasteful behaviour with a noun, like “energy hog”. The idea is that, just as people are eager to claim desirable identities, it’s important to them to avoid being tied to negative identities. We haven’t managed to get traction on that yet but I am working on it actively and remain optimistic that we will.”

Reference: Bryan, Walton, Rogers & Dweck. 2011. Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self. PNAS

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Comments (11)

  1. Perhaps this is a positive tactic for noun/verbs associated with unemotional/uncontroversial subjects, but when employed in areas where stigmatization is the word of the day, Mr. Bryan is dangerously inviting class warfare. Being either a “non-smoker” or “healthy eater” pits each against “smokers” and “non-healthy (not always objectively defined) eaters.” It’s invoking “Don’t be one of THEM.” It’s malicious.

    Relatedly though (and on the flip side), it fully supports one of the arguments our organization asserted in our 2003 lawsuit against the NYC and NYS smoking bans. Perhaps we were the first to say exactly this — that there’s no difference between the verb and the noun and that to ban “smoking” is to ban the “smoker.” So thanks for THAT vindication even though the judge wouldn’t see it that way.

    Founder, NYC Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (C.L.A.S.H.)

  2. that there’s no difference between the verb and the noun and that to ban “smoking” is to ban the “smoker.”
    This research seems to be pointing to how these descriptions are actually treated quite differently, so it’s not clear to me it supports your point. Plus your point doesn’t work anyway; the smoker is still allowed to go places, they just can’t smoke while there. That’s why you ban smoking, and not smokers.

    The ‘class warfare’ angle is a bit excessive, but I think you’re right that this work does emphasise how, when behaviour is connected to identity, that behaviour is thought of differently. I think you should be a bit careful about how you apply this, but given that this kind of understanding is commonly applied in marketing I’m personally happy with attempts to push back in other directions.

  3. Walt Cody

    I’m inclined to agree with the woman above. First, you assume that the full identity of someone who smokes (or eats carrots) is bound into that fractional activity in their lives. (Is someone who enjoys a glass of wine with his dinner to define himself as “a drinker”?) If asked to apply any label to myself, (if I didn’t balk at the idea of summarizing my entire being in a word) I might, in some circumstances, choose American, or (only were I religious and considered that one of my defining features) my religion. I might, were I an actor, professional athlete, scientist, lawyer (or any other prestigious or consuming occupation) define myself as such, while I would not think to define myself by the fact that I happen to earn a living by washing dishes.

    As to the second part of your formula (smoking bans don’t ban smokers, just smoking), Under that rubric I suppose you could, for instance, ban “voting Republican” without, at least technically, banning Republicans. Or, for instance, ban “practicing the Jewish religion” without banning Jews. I believe this is analagous to the laws banning homosexuals from gathering in public places (see the Stonewall Riots). Technically, it didn’t ban homosexuals per se from enjoying a drink in a bar, it simply banned their doing anything at all homosexual. Like, for instance, holding hands.

    Let’s imagine for a moment you enjoy wine with your meal and rarely have a meal without it. Now imagine a ban on drinking in all public places. You can never again enjoy a Pinot Grigio with your dinner. Either that, or you’re forced to drink it outside on the sidewalk. (Take a bite of your chicken; get up, go outside and then take a sip of your wine.) Would you consider yourself to all-intents-and-purposes banned? Would you bother to go to restaurants that imposed such restrictions on your sense of autonomy or your sense of enjoyment? Or would you then just “voluntarily” stay away? And would your absense represent a truly voluntary act or one that was forced on you by legislative restriction?)

    Social engineering can be a double-edged sword

  4. Chris M.

    I’m very curious what the results of this would be in Spanish, with different verbs for short-term and long-term personal states. This would rely on either being commonly used when describing someone who votes, but it might help separate out the two differences between the phrasings. One is the difference between an action and describing a general quality of the person, which is likely to be dominant. The other is the time aspect; voting is something you do once, but being a voter is a longer-term state.

  5. Daniel J. Andrews

    Wow, interesting idea, Chris. I remember opening a Spanish Bible to John 1:1 (not getting religious on you here), and it translated “In the beginning was the Verb” (in English Bibles it is rendered as “the Word”). Did that translation correspond to how Spanish-speaking peoples use/interact verb vs noun usage, so would a similar survey in Spanish change their perceptions? It says he had different ethnic groups in the second set but were there enough Spanish-speakers to see if there was a significant difference in how they responded?

    And off-topic…

    Walt, Audrey, you speak as if banning were a bad thing. People are banned for good reasons all the time (no children in adult lounges, no swearing at public service staff, etc). If someone doesn’t show courtesy and respect for those around him/her, they will be asked to leave and not come back till they’re willing to show respect.

    Walt, your wine analogy is not a good one. If you want to make it more relevant, how about a wine-drinker who spilled his wine into onto your food, clothing, and hair with every sip s/he took. Would you want that person banned? Suppose the accumulative effects of the spilled wine created health problems for the non-drinker? Suppose the majority of people didn’t want to have wine spilled on their food, their clothing, their hair? The only silly thing about this is that it took so long to ask wine-spillers not to spill their wine on the non-drinkers. Some of my students are already asking why it took so long (translation: WTF was wrong with you people?)

  6. Daniel J. Andrews, you confuse private policies with law. There is no law against bringing children into adult lounges (too many stroller moms and dads are now doing just that to the dismay of other patrons) and especially no law against swearing at public service staff (imagine police officers locking up people for swearing at them?! There’d be hell to pay for not having a thick enough skin in the face of free speech). It is absolutely the right of the owner of the private property to make the rules of the house. It is NOT the place of govt. to legislate it. In fact, it’s you who is practicing non-courtesy by determining for the owner what his policies should be. If the owner wants to allow smoking and you don’t like it he can ask YOU to leave and not come back until you’re willing to show respect for HIS rules.

    You’ve utterly failed to grasp the concept that Walt is describing. Mostly (but not completely) summed up in this sentence (with my own emphasis on two words): “Would you bother to go to restaurants that imposed such restrictions on your sense of **autonomy** or your sense of **enjoyment**?”

    I’m alarmed that you are a teacher and what it is you’re teaching your students.

  7. Kilae

    For the original post: I’d be interested in seeing if this affects one’s perceptions of other individuals in advertising,media, political campaigns, and entertainment of both the fictional and non-fictional varieties.

    As for the derailment in the comments section:
    My simple summation: it is the government’s place to legislate for the health and safety of its citizens.
    (You can argue about legal justification and jurisdiction, but it has been established to be within the bounds of a state’s authority to legislate health, safety, and welfare laws.)

    Audrey, I think Daniel’s point wasn’t about the law, but about things that could get you banned from a place. If you want specific examples of the what is banned by law, though, children are legally banned from bars, casino tables, some stores without a parental escort (liquor and tobacco stores), and most primary schools are inaccessible to non-staff adults when children are on campus (with occasional exceptions for parents, guardians, and visitors if escorted). As for swearing, no, the first amendment protects us from being arrested for swearing at a police officer; but any threats could be considered grounds for arrest, and yelling at them through a bullhorn or playing your music too loud could be considered disturbing the peace and grounds for arrest.

    As a purely theoretical experiment, I don’t like the abridgement of freedom that the ban on smoking in public places imposes. Along that theoretical vein, however, we should also be allowed to shoot guns on city strees, be able to drink alcohol while driving, and fly planes without a license – not being allowed to do so abridges our freedom. As a practical matter, I can appreciate that those laws are in place to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community as a whole. Many laws are in place that affect a person’s freedom in order to protect the safety of those around them: drunk or impaired driving laws being the most obvious, but also hands-free cell phone laws, asbestos laws, city ordinances against discharging a firearm in city limits, and licensing requirement for drivers and pilots.

    Bans on smoking tobacco (and marijuana in states like California where it is legal at the state, if not federal, level) in public places protects the health and safety of those that have little choice in their exposure – restaurant workers often don’t have the choice to up and leave their jobs, needing that income to survive, and are forced into making a choice between their health and their economic welfare. The health inspectors that are mandated to visit restaurants have no choice but to visit both a smoking and non-smoking establishment for an equal amount of time. Delivery people, outside maintenance people, ABC officials, and everyone else that comes into contact with that place of business will be exposed to a carcinogen that is outside of their control. All of them could refuse to do their job and visit a place, but they would be fired – and then the question of their absence due to firing becomes one of, “Does their absence represent a truly voluntary act or one mandated by outside forces?”

    I agree, social engineering is a double-edged sword. We have to pick and choose our battles and deal with the subsequent repercussions as best we can.

    All this being said… smokeless cigarettes, anyone? Afaik, almost everywhere that has a smoking ban allows smokeless cigarettes indoors, so you can get your nicotine fix while eating your lunch without blowing smoke on the nearby tables, making this whole argument sort of moot (unless you really, really are selfish enough that you won’t compromise and deal with your nicotine craving for an hour or two in an alternative fashion that doesn’t affect the enjoyment of those around you.)

  8. I’m sorry but it was I who originally stuck to the topic (no derailment) about the use of verbs versus nouns. It was some others who decided to introduce straw men on THIS topic which MIGHT be relevant to debate elsewhere and why I bothered answering.

    You too Kilae stretch comments. “No swearing at public service staff” is now (by your own imaginary stretch) “threats” and “loud speakers” to counter my opinion? Daniel didn’t say those things and my answer was narrowly tailored to what he DID say. Don’t now speak for him and tell me I’m wrong by introducting new scenerios as if they were already advanced.

    There is NO law banning children from bars. They just cannot be served. That you are unable to make THAT distinction indicates that your general reasoning suffers on all else. The final example being your comparison of smoking in public to firing a gun. I’ve heard that one before. It too is absolutely not the same thing. Whereas being struck by a bullet (as a target or innocent bystander) will undeniably cause physical injury or death and which was fully involuntary, exposure to cigarette smoke still remains a controversially weak statistical risk and one which you can voluntarily choose to avoid. The ones you say cannot avoid it (like delivery people) is even weaker. If you accept that primary smoking causes harm then you must also accept the attendant fact that it takes 30 to 40 years of direct inhalation for that to happen. Whiffs of smoke for several minutes x number of days a week is harming no one.

    A late well known columnist once told me that when it comes to smoking, otherwise intelligent minds go AWOL. That’s how much the bias on the subject affects people. He nailed it.

  9. Enough of the derailing. Everyone’s had their say – now, stop.

    @Chris – I love the idea of expanding this into languages where verbs/nouns have subtly different uses/associations.

  10. Kilae

    @Audrey: California prohibits anyone under the age of 21 in bars by law; this doesn’t show a lack of reasoning, just an occasionally California-centric viewpoint. Also, I wasn’t trying to reframe what Daniel said, just put out examples that were applicable.
    @Ed: Sorry!

  11. Okay, one last time: end the derailment. Don’t get your last word in, apologise, and end the derailment. Just end it now.


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