American Political Science Review

Research Article

Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment

ALAN S. GERBERa1 c1, DONALD P. GREENa2 c2 and CHRISTOPHER W. LARIMERa3 c3

a1 Yale University

a2 Yale University

a3 University of Northern Iowa

Abstract

Voter turnout theories based on rational self-interested behavior generally fail to predict significant turnout unless they account for the utility that citizens receive from performing their civic duty. We distinguish between two aspects of this type of utility, intrinsic satisfaction from behaving in accordance with a norm and extrinsic incentives to comply, and test the effects of priming intrinsic motives and applying varying degrees of extrinsic pressure. A large-scale field experiment involving several hundred thousand registered voters used a series of mailings to gauge these effects. Substantially higher turnout was observed among those who received mailings promising to publicize their turnout to their household or their neighbors. These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation.

Correspondence:

c1 Alan S. Gerber is Professor, Department of Political Science, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520 (alan.gerber@yale.edu).

c2 Donald P. Green is Professor, Department of Political Science, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520.

c3 Christopher W. Larimer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Northern Iowa, 1227 West 27th Street, Cedar Falls, IA 50614.

Footnotes

The authors are grateful to the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University and to Practical Political Consulting, which funded components of this research but bear no responsibility for the content of this report. Special thanks go to Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting, who designed and administered the mail program studied here. This research was reviewed and approved by the Yale Human Subjects Committee.

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