The Mere Measurement Effect

I listen to a lot of politics and policy podcasts, and one thing I learned over the last few years is that asking people to vote and encouraging them to vote isn’t very effective. What is effective, is asking people how they plan to vote. If you ask someone where their polling place is, how they plan to get there, when they plan to complete their mail in ballot, and if they will sit down with a spouse to vote, they actually become more likely to vote.


This seems like a strange phenomenon, but it appears that getting people to talk through the voting process helps cement their plans in their mind. The process seems to be related to the mere-measurement effect, which Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about in their book Nudge. Writing about individuals who participate in surveys and their behavior after being surveyed they write,


“Those who engage in surveys want to catalogue behavior, not influence it. But social scientists have discovered an odd fact: when they measure people’s intentions, they affect people’s conduct. The mere-measurement effect refers to the finding that when people are asked about what they intend to do, they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers.”


The mere-measurement effect, just like the questions about how and where a person actually plans to cast their ballot, is a nudge. The brain is forced to think about what a person is doing, and that establishes actual plans, behaviors, and goals within the mind. It is very subtle, but it shifts the thought patterns enough to actually influence behavior. Once we voice our intention to another person, we are more likely to actually follow through compared to when we keep our inner plans secret. This can be useful for a supermarket trying to sell a certain product, a politician trying to encourage supporters to vote, or for charitable organizations looking to get more donations. The mere-measurement effect is small, but can be useful for nudging people in certain directions.

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