How do you get people to do things?

Here’s a smattering of experimental research findings, courtesy of the Fostering Sustainable Behaviour site (which also provides sources for the data):

  • When asked if they would financially support a recreational facility for the handicapped, 92% made a donation if they had previously signed a petition in favor of the facility, compared with 53% for those who had not been asked to sign the petition.
  • Residents of Bloomington, Indiana, were called and asked if they would consider, hypothetically, spending three hours working as a volunteer collecting money for the American Cancer Society. When these individuals were called back three days later by a different individual, they were far more likely to volunteer than another group of residents who had not been asked the initial question (31% versus 4%, respectively).
  • A sample of registered voters were approached one day prior to a U.S. presidential election and asked: “Do you expect you will vote or not?” All agreed that they would vote. Relative to voters who were not asked this simple question, their likelihood of voting increased by 41%.
  • Ending a blood-drive telephone call with the query: “We’ll count on seeing you then, OK?” increased the likelihood of individuals showing up from 62% to 81%.
  • Individuals who were asked to wear a lapel pin publicizing the Canadian Cancer Society were nearly twice as likely to subsequently donate than were those who were not asked to wear the pin.

Many of these scenarios marry up easily with political situations; e.g. more likely to donate if first asked to wear a pin = perhaps more likely to donate if first asked to put up a poster.

Looking beyond the detailed possible parallels, there are two broad conclusions I would draw from this sort of research.

First, the benefits of having a sensible sliding scale of actions that people can be asked to move along.

In political parties it is often a very simple, lumpy scale: be an armchair member, spend lots of time delivering, run the local party / be a candidate. Coming up with more inventive, smaller increments along that scale is important.

It’s worth bearing in mind though that other research more specifically into political parties points towards there being two sliding scales – one for supporters (vote for party, put up poster, donate etc.) and one for those keen on getting involved in politics (attend meeting, help organise event, run for office etc.). Although some people migrate from the former to the latter, people who want to be on the latter can be really put off if all they are offered are options on the former scale.

Second, these examples highlight the benefits of having good data which can be used in a joined-up way. Not all the data needs to be in one database, but there needs to be sensible sharing of data and accurate cross-references in order to be able to make the best of opportunities to move people from voting to posters to donations and so on.

If you’ve got any good examples of what has worked for you or in your area, do share them in the comments.

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This entry was posted in What do the academics say?.


  • Andrew Suffield 15th Oct '09 - 2:32pm

    Not to mention the lack of alternatives to delivering and canvassing for those who aren’t suited to such tasks.

  • This is pretty suggestive that you should do knocking up the day before rather than on the day. Maybe tele-knocking up the night before?

  • Would you have the time or resource to tele-knock up everyone the night before? Surely we already do this by an eve of poll. Maybe a targetted telephone or in person knock up to those who don’t always vote.

  • It’s been done in one-off Council by-elections but I’d agree its not that common.

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