Voter Decision Affected by Polling Place, Study Finds

June 23, 2008

Politicos take note: Where people are assigned to vote can influence how they vote.

Researchers in a new study found voters were more likely to approve a school-funding initiative if they were assigned to cast their ballot at a school.

Numerically the effect was small: In the precincts analyzed, the initiative earned 2 percent more votes at schools than it did from voters assigned to churches, community centers, and other locations.

But "it's big in [the] sense that it would be big enough to tip the scales in a close election," said study leader Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

For example, in 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 0.009 percent of the votes officially counted in Florida to win the U.S. presidency.

The research appears online today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Behavioral Priming

The study supports the psychological concept known as "behavioral priming"—that simple stimuli in the environment can influence judgment and behavior.

In a classic example, students shown a picture of a library subsequently spoke quieter than students shown a control image.

In another study, people left a lab slower if they had been exposed to words such as "bingo" and "Florida" rather than to controls.

Presumably the subjects associated bingo and Florida with often slower seniors, experts say.

"Similarly, voting in a school may activate school relevant norms that one should support public education," study co-author Marc Meredith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in an email.

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