What has your senator done for you lately?

A new campaign ad uses a clever cognitive psychology trick to win your vote.

Posted Oct 18, 2010

Political campaigns are a great place to see psychological theories put to work. For better or worse, they're willing to use the findings of cognitive and social psychology to change how you think and manipulate how you feel. All in the name of a vote.

A recent political tv ad for California U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina makes clever use of a cognitive psychology trick. It asks viewers: Barbara Boxer has been in the Senate for seventeen years. Can you name three things she's done to improve your life and the state of California?

Psychologists know what we use the ease of retrieving information from our own memory as a sign of how common it is -- this is the availability heuristic. We assume that if we can easily think of examples, something must be common or true. If we struggle to think of an example, we think it must be rare or untrue.

Researchers have even manipulated people's beliefs and attitudes by asking them to think of one example, or many examples, of something. For example, if I ask you to think of something you're grateful for, you'll likely think of something quickly-and then feel pretty good about your life. If I ask you to think of twenty things you're grateful for, it may backfire. After the first few, you may start to struggle, and you may not even feel like you can sincerely fill a list of twenty. That struggle to think of examples will make you feel worse about your life-even though you actually thought of more things you were grateful for!

Carly Fiorina's ad is clever because it banks on the fact that most Californians have absolutely no idea what a Senator does, let alone what one Senator has done recently. Most voters will not be able to think of single thing Boxer has done -- not because Boxer hasn't done anything, but because they probably wouldn't be able to think of a single thing any U.S. Senator has done to improve their lives.

The same ad could work against any incumbent. When you realize you can't readily answer the question, the availability heuristic will lead you to think, "Gee, she must not have done much for California," which is one step away from "She must be a lousy senator," which is, of course exactly where Carly Fiorina's team wants you.

*This blog post was not approved by, sponsored by, or in anyway connected to either campaign. Whomever you support, I encourage you to VOTE in your local election!

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