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The cognitive science of getting out the vote

September 15th, 2020, 10:00am by Sam Wang


There’s been a fair bit of research on how to optimize appeals to get people to go vote. But what about optimizing the effort of the people who do the volunteer work of turning them out?

I received the following mail:

I’m finding that there are so many campaigns to help that I feel as though I’m spreading myself thin–texting for Jaime Harrison one day, Sara Gideon another day, Bollier, Texas state candidates, some for Biden in swing states, etc. Do you have a theory of whether it’s more effective to focus on a small number of races and hit them every day vs. helping more campaigns in smaller volume?
Oh yes, I do. It applies to working for whatever candidate or party your support. Let me put on the cognitive science/neuroscience hat.

We hear about “multitasking,” but in terms of both time and mental effort, multitasking is a myth. (It’s in one of my books!) Whenever you try to do multiple things that are mentally taxing, it is never faster to do them in parallel, or even in quick succession. The best strategy is to do one task until it is done, then take up the next one. One reason is that there is some non-zero switching time for your brain to transition from one task to another.

So you should never text for multiple candidates in the same session. The arguments you would make are different, and the type of people you talk to are different. More broadly, there’s the question of specialization. All that factual knowledge that you bring to bear for one candidate takes a while to learn. You are likely to be more effective if you just work for the same candidate all the time. Functional MRI scans show that well practiced skills are associated with patterns of brain activity that are more focused in space and seemingly smaller. It is as if we become more efficient in our use of brain resources when we get good at something.

There is a great old article by Atul Gawande which described a “hernia factory” in Canada with an amazing track record. It was the only procedure they did. Go thou, and do likewise – but with your campaigning skills. Get really good at texting, or registering voters, or calling, whatever you are in a position to do.

If focusing on one candidate sounds monotonous, think of joining up with a group to all work together for the same candidate. You will build up esprit de corps, compare notes, and possibly avoid boredom. Of course, three weeks from now you can always revisit your choice of candidate and see if there is urgent need elsewhere.

Tags: 2020 Election · Uncategorized

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Froggy

    What’s next? You’re going to tell us not to dilute our activism skills by spending time writing comments here? That’s crazy talk, Sam.

  • Joseph Bland

    OT, but I found this paper fascinating! It suggests a long term advantage to open-mindedness.

    https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/37/eabb7906

  • Richard Wiener

    Sam, is this is tongue in cheek? The career of a professor is notorious for demanding multi-tasking. Or if you prefer, rapid sequential tasking. I’m guessing Innovations in Democracy isn’t the only thing you’ve been working since 2004, or even the only thing you are working on right now. I’m also pretty sure a lot of people are capable of having deep knowledge of more than one candidate or of one issue at a time. Here’s an example from sports: Serena Williams’ coach was also part of the coaching team for Stefanos Tsitsipas at this year’s U.S. Open. And sometimes he works as a commentator at a tournament he is also coaching at — which might be a conflict of interest but that’s another issue. Probably does alright multi-tasking — at least he get’s paid well for it. Anyway, I enjoy the humor, which we need more of.

    • 538_Refugee

      I don’t know if I read it here or if it is in one of his other fine books that I read, the one on Your Child’s Brain. I’m pretty sure I remember this is based on study.

      Think of a computer memory page swap. Same thing. It takes a few cycles to swap out the old with the new. Now, this may generally be faster than your executions of the tasks so you might not always notice it. Ever get real busy and look around and wonder what it was you were going to do next? Stop and say “FOCUS”? These little pauses are your ‘page swaps’ going on. Your brain catching up. At least that’s the analogy I’ve developed.

    • Sam Wang

      Attempted multi-tasking slows me down so much. I’d get much more done if I committed to sequential tasking.

  • Beau Dure

    I’m a little frustrated with the postcard/letter organizations because they insist on mailing everything in late October. Shouldn’t we be avoiding USPS issues by sending earlier and encouraging people to vote early?

  • Jack Gindi

    Sam, I just had a eureka moment reading your post. I have had ADHD since I can remember.

    I find task shifting to be especially taxing and I find interruptions elicit a visceral reaction.

    Is there any connection between the ADHD & the neurological overhead required for taxing efforts?

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