September 18, 2006


In Politics, Aim for the Heart, Not the Head (Shankar Vedantam, September 18, 2006, Washington Post)

In 1935, researchers from Columbia University fanned out around the city of Allentown, Pa., and handed out leaflets ahead of local and state elections. What residents did not know was that they were part of an experiment in political persuasion -- an experiment whose results came to mind last week as Adrian M. Fenty stormed to victory in the District's Democratic primary.

Researchers first divided Allentown into sections. Five thousand campaign leaflets in some wards asked residents to answer a series of questions about policy matters. For example, it asked them whether they thought all children should have access to higher education irrespective of income, whether banks should be run on a nonprofit basis like schools and whether workers ought to have more say in running their workplaces.

Another set of 5,000 campaign leaflets went to a different set of wards. These leaflets contained a heartfelt letter -- supposedly from the young people of Allentown -- which said that with "Dad working only part-time on little pay, and Mother trying to make last year's coat and dress look in season," the future for young people in the city looked bleak.

The researchers looked at how many voters in the two sections they could persuade to vote for the Socialist Party, rather than the Republicans or Democrats. (The Socialist Party was chosen because it had no chance of winning the elections.)

What the researchers wanted to study was the contrast between rational and emotional appeals in political persuasion. The questionnaire's appeal was rational. It asked people who wanted a more egalitarian society to vote their views on policy matters. The letter's appeal was emotional: "We beg you in the name of those early memories and spring-time hopes to support the Socialist ticket in the coming elections!" it said. When the election was over, the Socialist vote increased by 35 percent over the previous election in the sections of the city that received the rational appeal. In the sections that received the emotional appeal, the Socialist vote increased by 50 percent.

The emotional are, of course, more inclined to the Left (towards security) to begin with, which is why the Democrats are the party of females.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2006 12:00 AM

So not only were they hosed, they were part of an experiment w/o their permission.

I smell lawsuit.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 18, 2006 10:38 AM

So researchers from Columbia University chose the Socialist party for this vote-building experiment solely for scientific purposes?


Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 18, 2006 7:48 PM

How do these results compare to the results from the control group?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 19, 2006 12:01 AM