President Obama's re-election team has already been lauded for its mastery of data and organziation, 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 campaign's "COBS" team, an informal group of unpaid advisors who shared their knowledge on the latest academic research and theories on how to influence the public's knowledge behavior.
Publicly, the group—which it gave itself the name of "consortium of behavioral scientists"—where 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 advertisments and voter mobilization efforts.
The tricks are sublte and don't work on everyone, but in the all-important ground game every little bit helps. Among the insights that were share are the fact the people like conform to social norms, both in the community and in their own past. So telling voters that their neightbors have already voted or reminding them about their past support, 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 increase 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 them to their advantage. The group said they were ignored by previous Democratic campaigns (as well, as Mitt Romney), but we suspect that psychologist departments across the country will be the ones getting phone calls in the next four years.