The Obama Campaign: Strengthening Communication with Psychology

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December, 2012

During the past few weeks, the media has been buzzing about techniques the Obama campaign used to bring out key voters. Among its many innovative ideas, the campaign reportedly engaged a “dream team” of psychology researchers to help it strengthen its communication with voters.

Many of the researchers’ ideas increased voter participation – and have the potential to help health communicators reach audiences more effectively. By incorporating research on how people make decisions, health communicators can help lead people toward longer, fuller lives.

Here’s a look at some of the ideas the Obama campaign used, and how health communicators can apply them:

 

  • Being Part of the Crowd: Research shows positive messages stating that “voter turnout is going to be high today” are more effective than warnings about the problem of low turn-out. The positive messages make people feel good about voting, because they feel they’re in step with their neighbors. Similarly, health communicators can make people feel good about positive choices by highlighting majorities of people engaged in healthy behaviors. Montana decreased teen smoking with advertisements stating that “Most (70 percent) of Montana teens are tobacco free,” according to behavioral scientists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
  • Planning for Success: Research has shown that people are more likely to perform an action when they create a specific plan ahead of time. Obama campaign volunteers asked people to talk through their voting plans on the phone. The conversation increased turnout among some groups by prompting them to visualize each step of their plan. In health communications, our call to action should include helping people create plans to support a healthy behavior. A simple example would be to ask them to put fitness classes on their calendars and plan how they will fit class around work, food and children.
  • Creating Positive Reinforcement: People want to stay committed to choices they’ve made in the past, according to research. The Obama campaign reminded people that they’ve voted before to prompt them to vote again. Health communicators can also employ this part of human nature. As we develop messages to drive healthy behaviors, we should strive to reinforce positive choices. Reminding people of the times they chose healthy behaviors – shunning fast food or choosing healthy outlets for stress – can reinforce those choices.

Psychology research helps communicators make little changes that have big impacts on audience engagement. With so much at stake in an election, it made sense for the campaign to use innovative techniques to connect with as many voters as possible.

 

There’s also a lot at stake in health communication. Health influencers can help people add years to their lives, avoid deadly diseases, and increase their happiness and productivity. Employing psychology research is an easy way for them to connect with audiences more effectively and create a greater positive impact.