A CALL TO ACTION is much more effective when the action may be observed by others.  But many calls to action are private.  In a new research study, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Associate Professor Todd Rogers and two co-authors show that even suggesting that people may have to explain their private actions to others can compel action. Their paper, “Potential follow-up increases private contributions to public goods,” is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). 

“How can we increase contributions to public goods—to get donors to give more to charity, citizens to vote, households to consume less energy, drivers to carpool, and patients to take all of their antibiotics?,” the authors ask. Rogers, whose academic research explores how social forces can be harnessed for public good, shows that making voting more observable and accountable increases the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote efforts. 

To test his theory, Rogers and co-authors John Ternovski and Erez Yoeli conducted a large-scale field experiment in which more than 700,000 people received Get-Out-the-Vote letters, some of which contained the message reading, “we may call you after the election to ask about your voting experience,” with the intention of learning whether or not message would prompt more people to actually vote.  The experiment showed that the subtle observability-heightening message increased the effectiveness of the intervention by almost 50 percent.

“For many practitioners, our results provide a practical, inexpensive, and effective strategy for increasing observability when soliciting public goods contributions via private communication,” the authors write. “Our results [also] add to the field evidence that public goods contributions can be increased by making contributions more observable – even by merely suggesting that there may be magnified observability. Finally, our results provide additional evidence that voting can be increased by interventions which might affect reputations.”  

Todd Rogers is a behavioral scientist who is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Most of his current research sits at the intersection of education, psychology, judgment and decision-making, and behavioral economics. It aims to shed light on the cognitive, motivational, and social barriers to student achievement, and to develop low-cost scalable interventions that are informed by behavioral science. Many of his research projects explore the impact on student achievement of mobilizing the support of students’ family and friends.

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