Monday, November 1, 2010

Helicopter Mom Will See You at the Polls

Posted By on 11.01.10 at 11:20 PM

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Over the weekend, the New York Times magazine ran an article detailing efforts by Democrats to get people voting this midterm season. Titled "Nudge the Vote," the piece makes a case for "the potency of peer pressure as a motivational tool," and cited examples including scripted phone calls in which voters are asked about their Voting Day plans, and direct-mail pieces that inform recipients that the D.N.C. is monitoring their voting habits. Such tactics are experimental and based on behavioral science, leading one nonprofiteer to dub them "prescription drug trials for democracy."

Now a tipster and self-described "dedicated voter" passes along an e-mail that she received from Organizing for America—the Democratic National Committee's community organizing project—demonstrating these motivational techniques. It's kind of invasive!

The text of the e-mail:

It's important that we know when you plan to cast your ballot Tuesday so we can make smart decisions about who to call and which doors to knock.

And if you make a plan and let us know today, we'll send you a reminder and help you stick with it, even if you end up running late or are busier than you expected.

Where will you be before you head to the polls? What will you be up to? And most importantly: When are you planning to vote on Election Day?

A hyperlink takes you to a "Plan My Vote" page that includes fields for you to fill in your e-mail and zip code, plus a list of four time windows. You're supposed to check box-choose the time frame when you're most likely to vote. After you do this and click "submit," the campaign website thanks you, in the interests of civility.

Do people really need such e-mails? It's like the Obama campaign people are doting parents, anxiously making sure that we make it to soccer practice on time and nagging us about turning in our college applications before the deadline. Thing is, parents never ask such questions entirely for the benefit of their children: it's their anxiety that precipitates such questions. You could say anxiety is an issue here with the Dems, who have probably seen Nate Silver's election forecasts and don't like how the numbers add up.

Some other questions they maybe should have asked, while they were at it:

— Will you eat before voting?
— What will you eat? (We recommend something light and nutritious, like celery sticks and peanut butter.)
— What will you wear to the polls?
— Will you be parting your hair to the left or to the right? (Do not bother answering if you are bald.)
— What will the contents of your purse/wallet be?
— Does the name of the gubernatorial candidate you hope to vote for sound more like "Gin" or "Quinnoulias"?
— By the way, do you realize that we know how you've voted in the last several elections?
— Do all of these questions totally creep you out, or what?

Organizing for America's e-mail is not just an advertisement for the Democratic party. It's also a way to test voters' “implementation intentions,” explained in the Times's article as a psychological concept that suggests "people are more likely to perform an action if they have already visualized doing it." Supposedly, this stuff works: in one study, "asking people about their voting plans increased turnout by four percentage points." Those living with others were more likely to already be making a plan for Election Day that includes voting, since it may involve the schedules of housemates, than those living alone, for whom the nudge to rehearse an Election Day routine seems more potent.

It kinda bothers me that these e-mails are effective. I think people should be annoyed by them. But I also think people should be annoyed by the Google thing that tracks your movements so that, three years from now, you can find "that barbecue place" whose name you've forgotten; and almost all forms of unsolicited customer service; and being asked if I want my bagel toasted and smeared with cream cheese when I really just want you to hand it to me with no questions asked, and no bag, if I wanted toasting and cream cheese I'd just ask for it, thanks. Just not a big fan of people asking me questions for the sake of asking, or "filling" in blanks that aren't really there, or telling me that I need to make plans for things I can just go and do without anyone holding my hand (though if Obama himself ever wanted to hold my hand, I would let him).

Team Orwell on this one.

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