The Sneaky, Powerful Psychology Behind the ‘I Voted’ Sticker

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Why vote?

It’s a question behavioral scientists have been pondering for a long time — after all, few people cast their ballot thinking it will be the one to sway the election. Ask a random voter about what propels them to the polls, and odds are decent you’ll get some sweeping combination of optimism and obligation: “Because it’s our civic duty.” “Because that’s what keeps democracy going.” “Because people fought for my right to do this.”

And those may all very well be things that you truly feel in your heart. (In which case, good! They’re all great, important sentiments.) But as Fast Company’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan recently noted, there’s another common, less-discussed, not-quite-so-noble reason for voting: because we’re afraid of being judged.

That fear is the genius behind those “I voted” stickers you’ll see everywhere in just 21 days. They’re part boast, part public-shaming tool, a way of aligning yourself with those who did their part and identifying those who didn’t. Or, as Campbell-Dollaghan put it, “It all boils down to this: Many of us vote so that we can tell everyone else we voted. And we don’t want to have to lie about it if we didn’t.”

Research backs it up. One 1999 study, for instance, estimated that somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of people who didn’t vote will lie about it if asked. More recently, a team of economists from Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago found that people were driven to vote if they knew ahead of time they’d have to discuss their voting behavior. For that study, as Campbell-Dollaghan explained:

The researchers carried out a series of field experiments focused on the 2010 and ‘12 elections. In one case they hung a doorknob reminder on homes before an election, notifying them that researchers would show up three weeks later to conduct a survey on their participation (a control group just got a simple doorknob reminder about the election). In others, they offered small amounts of cash to incentivize lying about their voting record. The key? The researchers already had those records, so they knew who had really voted, who hadn’t, and at what point people would be incentivized, down to the dollar.

As it turned out, she wrote, “the ‘cost’ of having to lie about voting was pretty high, at about $7 per non-voter. In short: People don’t like having to say they voted if they didn’t.”

They also don’t like feeling like they’re on the outs. As The Atlantic noted in 2012, people on the fence are more likely to show up to the polls if they think voter turnout will be higher — even though, counterintuitively, that also means their vote counts for less. Hence the power of the “I voted” stickers, which signify membership in a club with one very specific entrance requirement. We vote for all kinds of reasons, but one of the most potent is that we vote to feel like we belong.