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It’s an election year, which means you’ve probably been bombarded with polls asking you questions about candidates and issues. But is information the only thing pollsters are after? Questions are often more than just questions. They can sometimes have a profound effect on our behavior and decisions, even if we don’t realize it.

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{♫Intro♫}.

Commercials during a heated election season are — you know, they’re always a good time. And many of these ads follow a similar format:.

There’s a montage of black and white pictures, and ominous music is playing in the background. I can’t believe they’re still using the ominous music! And then, a narrator asks, “Can you really trust this candidate’s ability to protect our environment if they didn’t adopt that random stray dog that wandered down their street one time in 1994?” When the commercial ends, it seems easy to brush off the melodrama, but really, that might not be the case — because questions... are often more than just questions: They can have a profound effect on our behavior, and can influence our decisions, even if you don’t realize it.

So the next time someone is “just asking questions” — whether in politics or anything else… here’s what to watch out for. First, if you’ve ever gotten a text asking if you’re planning to vote for a candidate, it might have seemed like a pretty neutral question. But really, just asking if someone intends to do something often makes them more likely to do it.

It’s called the mere measurement effect, or the question-behavior effect. And it’s true for all kinds of behaviors, like donating blood, choosing a brand of candy bar, and even flossing. And during an election, people who are asked if they intend to vote or sign a voting pledge are more likely to show up at the polls.

Researchers think there are a few reasons this might happen. One hypothesis is that making a commitment to something makes you pay more attention to things related to that task. So, in this case, you might notice what the weather will be on election day, campaign ads before a YouTube video, or how traffic is on your route to the polling location.

And all those conscious or unconscious reminders could drive you to actually sit down with a ballot or get to the polls. Another possibility is that this is related to consistency. Generally, we tend to get uncomfortable when our behavior doesn’t align with our beliefs or commitments.

That feeling even has a name: cognitive dissonance. And to avoid it, we try to reduce those conflicts whenever we can. So, here, if you publicly committed to voting, not showing up at the polls might make you feel all squirmy inside.

So as election day draws near, you might be more likely to cast a ballot and prevent some future discomfort. Overall, the most accurate explanation is probably a combination of these ideas and others, and it likely depends on the situation, question, and person. For example, people who tend to hold themselves accountable for things are less motivated by the need to reduce cognitive dissonance — maybe because it doesn’t come up for them as often.

Still, whatever the reason, the mere measurement effect can have huge implications on something like voting behavior. Like, in one study, researchers asked people if they intended to vote in the 2005 German federal election or the 2006 US midterm election. They found that when they questioned people a few days before the German election, the number of participants who voted increased by 4%.

And in the US, asking people two months in advance increased the number of participants who voted early by about 3%. I know, those percentages sound small. But in a close race, 4% could be enough to push one candidate over another.

Because of a very straightforward question! Now, asking someone to make a commitment is one thing, but especially in competitive elections, a lot of hypothetical questions get thrown around, too. And studies have shown that those can affect us as well.

Yes, even totally ridiculous ones. This technique is used all the time in push polls. These are fake polls that use loaded questions to disguise persuasion as political opinion polling.

The campaign asking the questions doesn’t really care about people’s answers; they just want to get an idea or rumor stuck in people’s minds. So a push poll might ask something like, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Candidate. Green if they were being investigated for embezzlement?” Candidate Green is totally not being investigated for embezzlement, but that’s not the point.

Because the thing with hypothetical questions is that it doesn’t matter that they’re hypothetical. It doesn’t even matter if we know that whatever they’re suggesting isn’t true. These questions have a mental contamination effect.

In other words, they contribute to how we form judgments in unconscious and uncontrollable ways. Researchers think this may largely be due to accessibility: When you hear that hypothetical question, your brain can’t help but think of related info. Like, asking a positive question about someone makes all the other positive things you know about them easier to remember.

The same is true for negative information if you ask a question about something negative. So even if you know Candidate Green would never embezzle anything…. Now it sounds like I’m guilty.

It sounds like I’m guilty! You might start to think about other things they’ve done that you didn’t quite agree with. And then suddenly, you’re on the fence about who to vote for.

This process of forming connections between old and new information is called cognitive elaboration. And the more someone does it, the more likely they are to act in a way that’s consistent with the hypothetical question. But there’s good news!

One of the reasons questions are so effective is that they’re basically advertising in disguise. When people are presented with super obvious marketing or attempts to sway our opinion, we tend to just filter them out. But questions manage to slip through that filter — at least, unless we’re aware of what they’re trying to do.

This means that just learning about these effects and how they’re being used makes them less effective. In other words, exactly what you’re doing right now. Now, on the other hand….

Mental contamination can still be hard to avoid. So if you get a call from an alleged pollster asking “how you would feel if…” ...maybe just hang up. If you liked this episode and want to learn more about the psychology of voting….

Hey, good news! We’re making a four-part mini-series about just that topic. One video about the psychology of negative campaigns already went live over at youtube.com/scishow, and we’ll have two more videos coming out next week.

We’ll see you then! {♫Outro♫}.