Trying to make someone care about political issues? A new Cornell study found that citing percentage figures — such as the 79 percent of Americans who report dissatisfaction with healthcare costs amidst jaw dropping increases in insurance premiums and insulin prices — alongside sympathetic stories are one’s best bet.
Prof. Adam Levine, government, and Stony Brook University Prof. Yanna Krupnikov published study “Political Issues, Evidence, and Citizen Engagement: The Case of Unequal Access to Affordable Health Care” on Feb. 13 in the Journal of Politics.
Levine and Krupnikov investigated which types of political evidence most strongly influence participants, encouraging them to take action. The researchers compared the use of percentages, raw numerical data and case studies framed with sympathetic individual stories against case studies that had more general examples, and measured how participants reacted to each type.
To do so, researchers conducted a series of field experiments in 2015, working with an unnamed Ithaca non-profit to conduct direct mail, email and surveys through Survey Sampling International. In total, over 8,000 people were sampled.
The researchers measured engagement through survey criteria: personal concern, desire to prioritize a problem and donating money to a related cause.
In the email study, the researchers utilized different subject line headings including “Please help! 22.8 million uninsured still can’t afford insurance” and “Please help! 79% of the uninsured still can’t afford insurance.” They then analyzed how engagement responses differed between the usage of raw numbers and a percentage.
Across each type of survey the results found highest engagement with individualized, sympathetic case studies and percentage-based evidence.
“When you talk about the millions of children who are starving, or the millions of refugees who are seeking out a better life it fails to have this emotional connection that tends to then motivate people to pay more attention and to become engaged,” Levine told the Cornell Chronicle, a University-run publication.
The researchers chose questions on inequality in the healthcare system, a topic they considered unrelated to mainstream political discussion, to reduce potential interference in the study by individual political beliefs.
In the direct mail survey, donation levels had a statistically significant difference in engagement, meaning that there was a low probability the result would happen randomly when they included a specific anecdote. The researchers found that these individual case studies of struggles with the healthcare system resonated with respondents more than the scope of the issue.
Levine told the Chronicle that “the percentage-based evidence and the human interest evidence tended to drive engagement but talking about the overall magnitude of the problem didn’t.”
The study originally hoped to help understand what makes people care problems they may not encounter themselves, Levine told the Chronicle, as well as how to “pull at people’s heartstrings” to elicit positive responses.