The ‘Subtle Weapon’ Of Behavioral Science That Helped Obama Get Elected

Obama campaign officials allegedly enlisted the help of behavioral psychologists to add a new dimension to the President’s re-election strategy.

Last year, an official with the Obama campaign gave Craig Fox a call. Fox, a psychologist in Los Angeles, was invited to attend a political planning meeting in Chigaco. According to those who attended the session, Obama campaign official Matthew Barzun wanted to hear what Fox had to say about the President’s re-election campaign.

“He said, ‘Bring the whole group; let’s hear what you have to say,’ ” recalled Dr. Fox, a behavioral psychologist at the University of California.

And so began an effort by a team of social scientists to “help their favored candidate in the 2012 presidential election,” reports The New York Times. While some members of the team had consulted with the Obama campaign in the 2008 cycle, the meeting in January had a different purpose and feel.

“The culture of the campaign had changed,” Dr. Fox said. “Before then I felt like we had to sell ourselves; this time there was a real hunger for our ideas.”

President Obama’s campaign has long been heralded for its organization and mastery of data, but what the public hasn’t heard much about is its use of behavioral sciences to sway the public. Obviously, campaigning involves a great deal of petitioning the people, and Obama’s campaign used psychologists like Fox to help understand what it would take to reach the American population.

While the Obama campaign won’t admit to using any knowledge gained from the psychologists, an informal groups of unpaid advisers shared their knowledge on how to “influence the public’s knowledge behavior.”

A few of their subtle tricks included the belief that people like to conform to social norms, both in the community and in their own past. So, for example, telling voters that their neightbors have already voted or reminding them about their past support, makes them more likely to vote. Also, volunteers asked people if they’ve made a plan for voting on Election Day, because studies show that “creating even a simple plan increase the chances that a person will follow through.”

While those tips are used to encourage people to vote in general, a few tips helped people see Obama in a different light. Since research shows that it’s better to combat a negative story by promoting a different, more positive one, the Obama campaign ceased insisting that the President was not Muslim, and instead reminded the public that he is Christian.

Do you think this advice from psychologists makes a difference in who people vote for?

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