Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Get Out the Vote and Premack's Principle

I just got back from voting. I always vote. I figure if you don't vote, you can't complain, and that is not a right I care to lose. I suppose that one of these days I'll get around to absentee voting, but I have to admit I like marching down to the polling station and filling out my ballot. It feels responsible, and honorable, and empowered, and ever so adult. (Geez, you think by the age of 46, feeling like an adult would be old hat.) I like voting.

But...I have to say there wasn't exactly a crowd there panting for the opportunity to exercise their hard-won constitutional rights. (OK, harder won for some than for others.) So that got me to thinking about how it might be possible to encourage more people to vote. For instance, I have a cute little "I Voted" sticker on my shirt right now. What if businesses were encouraged to offer special deals to people wearing their "I Voted" sticker? It would be cool if on Election Day you could go collect a free cookie or a free coffee or two-for-the-price-of-one bagels. Your local chamber of commerce could print up copies of a map showing where you could get your voter goodies. (Just don't take advice on how to vote from them.) Nice advertising for the businesses, and rewards for the voters.

Better still, if we made Election Day a little more like Halloween, but with adults going around collecting goodies, people might develop a whole set of positive associations with voting. Voting would be fun, because it would lead to free stuff. (Everybody loves free stuff.) In behavior science lingo this would be an application of Premack's Principle, which says that beings will do something they like less in order to get to something that they like more. In my house we call this "you can watch TV after your homework is done" or "you can have dessert after you've had vegetables." Oddly enough, you can use this principle to, say, train a dog to stop sniffing the ground when you're out walking by giving the dog a chance to sniff the ground. Get a couple of good steps of walking, then release the dog to go sniff -- "OK! Go sniff!". As with all things training, work up from there in small increments. You walk nicely with me to get to the preferred behavior of sniffing. Now here's the really odd part. Walking nicely without stopping to sniff then starts feeling like fun to the dog, because the walking gets associated with the happy feelings about being allowed to go sniff. You can even end up with a dog who doesn't really want to sniff, because they're having such a good time walking with you -- all in anticipation of being allowed to sniff.

So if you had to go vote before you could go out and collect some free stuff, voting could start feeling like a joyful opportunity, rather than a pointless chore. (Of course, voting should feel like a joyful opportunity anyway, but should has very little to do with reality.) Personally, I'm feeling rewarded not only by my sense of responsible citizenship, but also by the knowledge that after tonight I'll be getting a break from the relentless ads for Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, and the robocalls pro and con this or that.


  1. A few years ago, our local donut shop offered a free donut that day -

    As for the break from the ads, one of our US Senate candidates has already commenced running ads IN FREAKING MAY - can you say waste of $$$ ? ? ?

  2. For several years a restaurant in Walnut Creek gave a free dessert to persons who had a "I Voted" sticker (before the prevalence of absentee balloting). I never took them up on the offer, but it was good to know I could. I, too, fel good about voting--and in person.

  3. In Monson, voting took place at the town offices. Yeah. The whole town was one precinct. The selectmen usually spent most of the day there, you knew the poll workers, they gave lollipops to kids, and most people brought their dogs. Voting was a pleasant interlude.