Although robust citizen participation is fundamental to a healthy democracy, we still lack a clear sense of how to motivate participation. This paper presents the results of an experimental study designed to see if the content of political appeals matters in motivating participation. Previous research in this area has had mixed results. This paper finds that political appeals that include some self-disclosure about the person making the request triggers a liking heuristic that causes subjects to be more likely to comply with a request for action. Subjects receiving the treatment appeal are significantly more likely to donate money to support a political cause.
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A related body of literature examines whether the content of television advertisements matters. For example, Brader (2006) finds that emotional appeals used in television advertisements are more likely to motivate participation than appeals that lack emotional content. Research debating whether negative advertising affects turnout (e.g. Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994; Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995; Finkel and Geer 1998) has also examined whether the tone of the advertisements makes them more or less motivating. These television advertisements are a particular type of political appeal because they can use visual cues that other types of appeals cannot. Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns, door-to-door canvassing, and phone banking are examples of widely used organizing techniques that cannot vary visual content. More research is necessary on the motivating characteristics of written, verbal, or interpersonal appeals.
Research on survey design confirms this idea, as written appeals which are personalized with the target’s name or other personal information are more likely to generate compliance than impersonal written requests (Dillman 2007, 152).
A second experimental condition designed to test the effect of personal threats was also implemented alongside this study of self-disclosure. The sixty subjects receiving this condition heard an appeal that highlighted the personal effect of proposed policy changes. The appeal said, “The quality of your drinking water could be endangered by the administration's proposed rollback…” However, an examination of manipulation checks showed that this appeal did not have the intended effect. The literature on threat argues that personal, specific threats should arouse greater anxiety in respondents, prompting a stronger emotional reaction and greater likelihood to take action (e.g. Marcus 2002; Brader 2006). Subjects hearing this appeal, however, were no more likely to feel worried (t215 = 1.3) or angry (t200 = 0.73). This condition may not have worked because the threat was not sufficiently different from the implicit threat in the control condition. Because this condition was completely independent of the other conditions, and had no effect on the results presented here, it is not discussed further. A helpful reviewer suggested, however, running the analyses treating these subjects as an additional control group. If we do that, t-tests show that subjects receiving the self-disclosure appeal are still more likely to find the interviewers likeable (t215 = 2.36) and more likely to make the donation (t217 = 2.40) than the combined control group. A saturated logit model mirroring the analysis in Table 2 also shows that subjects receiving the self-disclosure appeal are statistically significantly more likely make the donation (p = .009). In sum, the results are identical whether or not this group is included as part of the control group.
I also ran the model controlling for political interest and standard demographic variables (age, income, education, gender, and minority status) and found that the results did not change. As the t-tests in Table 1 show, the treatment and control groups did not statistically differ on these dimensions. Thus, even when those variables are included in a multivariate analysis, the effect of the disclosure appeal still holds. Neither political interest nor any of the demographic variables were statistically significant and the coefficient on the disclosure appeal hardly changed (b = .765, s.e. = .397).
The predicted probabilities are calculated by estimating the effect of hearing the disclosure appeal for each interviewer in each hour and averaging across them. The effect ranged from 17.3% for interviewer 3 in hour 1 to 19.6% for interviewer 1, 2, and 4 in hour 2.
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I am grateful to John Bullock, Tom Burke, Cordelia Chansler, Anamarie Farr, Hunter Gehlbach, Aysha Gregory, Matthew Levendusky, Aline Sayer, Nancy Scherer, Victoria Starrett, Emily Sy, two anonymous reviewers, and the editors for their help with this paper. This study is approved by the Institutional Review Board of Wellesley College.
Regularity of following current events: Some people are very active in politics and their communities while others are not. In general, how regularly do you follow current events? 1 = Never; 2 = Rarely; 3 = Occasionally; 4 = Somewhat regularly; 5 = Very regularly.
Regularity of discussing current events with others: Some people are very active in politics and their communities while others are not. In general, how regularly do you discuss current events with others? 1 = Never; 2 = Rarely; 3 = Occasionally; 4 = Somewhat regularly; 5 = Very regularly.
Political Interest: Five point scale based on mean of questions asking respondents how regularly they follow current events, discuss current events with others, and volunteer time to political causes. 1 = Never; 2 = Rarely; 3 = Occasionally; 4 = Somewhat regularly; 5 = Very regularly.
Partisan Strength: Coded based on questions asking respondents for their party affiliation on a 7 point scale. This partisan identification scale is recoded to reflect partisan strength as follows: 0 = Independent; 1 = Independent, Leaning Democrat or Republican; 2 = Democrat or Republican; 3 = Strong Democrat or Republican.
Education: Which category best describes the highest level of education you completed? 1 = Less than high school; 2 = High School graduate; 3 = Some college; 4 = College graduate; 5 = Post-graduate training or degree.
Income: What was the total household income you reported on your 2005 taxes? (Please take your best guess if you are uncertain). 1 = under $30,000; 2 = $30,000-$49,000; 3 = $50,000-$74,999; 4 = $75,000-$99,999; 5 = $100,000 or more.
Female: What is your gender? 0 = Male, 1 = Female
Age: What is your year of birth? Age = 2006-year reported by respondent.
Minority: What racial or ethnic category best describes you? 0 = White; 1 = Hispanic, Black/African-American, Asian, Other
Interviewer Enthusiasm/Likeability/Sincerity: Circle the answer that best describes your impression of the interviewer. To me, the interviewer seemed: 1 = Not at all enthusiastic/likeable/sincere; 2 = Slightly enthusiastic/likeable/sincere; 3 = Somewhat enthusiastic/likeable/sincere; 4 = Fairly enthusiastic/likeable/sincere; 5 = Extremely enthusiastic/likeable/sincere.
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Han, H.C. Does the Content of Political Appeals Matter in Motivating Participation? A Field Experiment on Self-disclosure in Political Appeals. Polit Behav 31, 103 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-008-9066-9
- Political participation
- Political appeals
- Field experiment