Human-centric case study: Young people’s voting behaviour

Driving the X Factor

The most recent general election saw a significant increase in the number of younger people voting: up to a respectable 57% from a rather dismal 43% in 2015.

Is this increase the result of a fundamental change or was it just a blip, courtesy of Jeremy Corbyn? While the Labour party did a good job of energising younger voters this time, it hasn’t necessarily addressed the more systemic issues that have led to lower levels of turnout among younger voters over the last several general elections or the overall level of disengagement with politics amongst this cohort.

One goal, many behaviours

When thinking about specific behaviours that would drive the outcome we wanted, we soon realised how many factors may be involved: As well as the young people themselves, there was a host of other people – peers, parents, politicians – whose actions may be part of the bigger puzzle.  And even among the potential voters, we identified multiple specific behaviours, for example registration in advance and voting on the day.

We focused our attention on one very specific behaviour: encouraging university students to vote when away from their ‘registered’ home address.

What’s driving existing behaviour and stopping the change?

Several behavioural biases were identified as being at play. Of these, affect is a key barrier. How do politics – and particular politicians – make me feel?  Does John McDonnell or Jacob Rees-Mogg set my pulse racing?

Incentive is another bias that emerged. What is in it for me? Do I really stand to benefit? How? If the policies that political parties focus on seem to cater to the older generation, why should I vote?

Low self-efficacy was another impediment to voting. If I’ve already registered at home, do I really need to register again? Can I register in two places and, if so, how? Low emotional involvement – coupled with low perceptions of incentive and self-efficacy – is a lethal combination to sustain the default of electoral inactivity.  What could we do about it?

Changing behaviour one vote at a time

Quite naturally, as we began to dive into these barriers, solutions began to emerge. But to give it more structure, we examined specifics of the Decision frame – Intervention, Moment and Social dynamics – to identify solutions.

We also recognised that the depth of systemic inaction or apathy meant that a multi-pronged approach would probably be required including nudging the behaviour of multiple different players.

Interventions included:

  • Incorporating voter registration in the university enrolment process. This would implicitly communicate a new social norm and overcome potential self-efficacy concerns. Choice architecture could reflect opt-out rather than opt-in.
  • Lobbying universities to frame higher education as dependent upon free democratic society, thereby positioning voting as the ‘price’ of receiving education.
  • Create (through a social media mechanic) competition between different university cohorts (eg arts vs sciences, different halls of residence) to show turnout in real time, driving social norm perceptions and encouraging herding.
  • Engaging younger voters by identifying and summarising election issues relevant to this cohort (for example university fees, employment challenges) and delivering these in bite-sized chunks through social media: building a new narrative.
  • Target messaging at those who can’t vote ‘this time’, to heighten the sense of what they are missing by not being able to vote: a loss they can avoid in future elections. This mechanic could also get younger siblings to encourage their older brothers and sisters to vote now.
  • Other longer-term solutions included mock general elections in schools, and encouraging more young people to play an active role in politics and the electoral process (vote counting etc).

Even when we solely focused on students in universities, a host of interventions were identified, not just to change students’ behaviours directly, but many requiring changes in the broader human ecosystem.

While our workshop exercise might have been hypothetical, it drove home the extent to which our usual marketing thinking is often too narrow: we think lots about ‘getting consumers to buy’, and much less about the peripheral behaviours that are required – and influenceable – to make that happen.

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