From the Lab: The Motivating Power of Identity

In a 2011 study, when prospective voters were asked “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” they were significantly more likely to be interested in voting than they were when they were asked ““How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?” (emphasis added) In addition, they were significantly more likely to actually go out and vote (95.5% turnout vs. 81.8% turnout).

Simply by changing the part of speech of a word (from the verb “to vote” to the noun “voter“), researchers tapped into the motivating power of identity: while voting is just something you occasionally do, being a voter is part of who you are. As the researchers note, “although the wording manipulation in these studies was subtle and rigorously controlled, the effects observed in [these experiments] are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout.”

You too can tap into this powerful motivation by asking your audience to be (or not be) a noun, rather than simply asking them to do (or not do) a verb. As the researchers note, this effect is likely to hold true for other moral identities (being “a healthy eater” is better than “eating healthy”), and the opposite effect is likely to hold true for negative behaviors (i.e., being “a quitter” is worse than “quitting”).

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