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What Motivates Voters? Political Scientist Peers into Voter Behavior


On Nov. 4, Americans will go to the polls to determine which of the two major parties will control Congress.
If the day turns out to be anything like traditional midterm elections, fewer than half of those eligible to cast a vote will actually do so (40 percent, according to the Pew Charitable Trust).

For Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., an expert on national elections, the million-dollar question that drives his research is, why?

Panagopoulos, a professor of political science and the director of Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and the Master’s Program in Elections and Campaign Management, specializes in the political psychology of voting behavior.

In two articles, “I’ve Got My Eyes on You: Implicit Social-Pressure Cues and Prosocial Behavior,” which appeared in the journal Political Psychology, and “Watchful Eyes: Implicit Observability Cues and Voting,” published recently in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, Panagopoulos measured voter behavior in Key West, Florida, and Lexington, Kentucky, respectively.

Psychologists and evolutionary anthropologists long ago realized that if someone goes in intending to give blood and sees a poster in the room featuring a pair of eyes, he or she is more likely go through with it; the same is true for other public-spirited behaviors, such as littering less.

Why, Panagopoulos theorized, couldn’t that behavior model be applied to voting?

He found that those who receive a postcard reminding them to vote are more likely to do so if the card shows an image of a pair of eyes, as opposed to more generic images like an American flag or a palm tree. They’re also more likely to vote than someone who never receives a card at all.

“These findings reinforce the idea that people vote partly for the social implications, because they want to be perceived as individuals who support the democratic process. That is possibly a function of evolutionary mechanisms, where people evolved to care what others think of them,” Panagopoulos said.

“Those people, the argument goes, developed a reputation for being good citizens, and that helped them be less ostracized and be embraced by their communities.”

Are people voting because they’re afraid others will look down on them if they don’t vote? Or are they doing it because they want to feel good about fulfilling their civic duty? That’s still an open question.

“There’s much more work and research that needs to be done,” he said. “But at least for now, we’re finding consistent results that suggest people engage more frequently in pro-social behavior when they know that they’re being watched or there’s a possibility that they’re being monitored. Social pressure is a powerful motivator.”

Panagopoulos has also studied the effects of paying people to vote, and an article on his findings, “Extrinsic Rewards, Intrinsic Motivation and Voting,” was published in the Journal
of Politics.

The idea of paying people is not a new one. In 2006, Arizona legislators proposed entering voters into a lottery for a cash prize. It was rejected, but the idea was resurrected recently in Los Angeles.

In his research, Panagopoulos found that when incentives ranging from $1 or $2 to $10 to $25 were offered, there was a slight uptick in turnout. The lower amount had a marginal effect, whereas the $10 or $25 stimulated turnout by 3 to 7 percentage points.

“We’re learning a great deal about why people vote and engage in costly pro-social behaviors like voting,” Panagopoulos said.

“The more we know about the psychological mechanisms and the other forces behind why people decide to vote or to abstain, the more we can leverage that information.”

Panagopoulos is crafting field experiments related to campaign finance, as part of a nearly $1 million grant he secured last year from the Open Society Foundation and the Omidyar Network’s Democracy Fund. The experiments, which are collaborations with colleagues at Columbia and Binghamton universities, will measure perceptions of how money influences politics, and whether or not there’s a disproportionate influence of money on politicians and political outcomes.

Recent Supreme Court decisions in cases such as 2010’s Citizens United and this year’s McCutcheon v. FEC, have radically changed the ways that candidates pay for political campaigns. As a result, concerns about possible corruption are rising.

“Voters are somewhat torn,” Panagopoulos said. “On the one hand, they know campaigns are super expensive and have to be financed somehow. But at the same time, they want to make sure there are mechanisms in place to prevent corruption or even the appearance of corruption, and sustain the legitimacy of the democratic process.”

On Nov. 4th, he’ll be joining analysts at NBC News’ Decision Desk, as he has in every election cycle since 2006. As it is a midterm election, the fate of congressional control will be determined more than ever by sheer turnout numbers.

“Understanding the voter calculus is crucial, especially for those interested in mobilizing voters in low-turnout elections like these,” he said.


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