Adrian Furnham and Raj Persaud: How to harness the power of positive questioning

Psychology suggests the best way to get more people to vote is simply to ask them if they will.

LET'S try a modest yet intriguing psychology experiment.

We know that voting is widely regarded as a civic responsibility, you're meant to vote, yet we also know that turnout is lamentably low and plunging ever lower in mature democracies such as ours.

So if we asked you to predict now whether you were going to vote in this upcoming Election, because we have put you on the spot (and you know the expectation is that you should vote) the likelihood is, asked to predict your voting behaviour in the future, you will tend to respond to any such inquiry, that, yes, you will indeed vote. However, we also know that for many people this prediction is an overly optimistic one, given the harsh truth of past behaviour.

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So let's say we ran an experiment where we divided a sample of the electorate into two groups, and for one, we asked them to predict whether they were going to vote or not, while we did nothing pertinent to the second group; they acted as a control. Now, if we followed these two groups up into the future, to examine whether they even entered a polling booth, the astonishing result is that being asked to predict the future changes it.

Those who are asked to forecast whether they are going to vote tend to confirm they will, much more so than would be expected from their past behaviour. They are responding to external expectation (and internal drivers of a similar nature) so they manage the impression they want to create of being responsible citizens, by predicting a behaviour they were in fact much less likely to perform in reality.

The control group, not asked to make predictions, vote at the lower baseline rate of the general population, which is, not that much. Why does being asked to predict that you are going to vote, make it much more likely that you will?

There are many theories that attempt to account for it, but no-one is exactly sure. A seminal paper by business psychologists Eric Spangenberg and Anthony Greenwald, pointed out that the phenomenon could be used to powerfully manipulate large populations into behaviours they had previously little intention of performing.

Spangenberg and Greenwald are probably the two world authorities on this intriguing "self-prophecy effect" and their paper entitled Social Influence by Requesting Self-Prophecy showed how asking people to predict their own behaviour in the future was associated on follow-up with spectacularly less cheating behaviour in tests, significantly more attendance at health clubs, and more voting.

One theory is that we like to see ourselves as consistent creatures, and having made a prediction of our behaviour in the future, not to actually confirm the prediction by performing the behaviour would force us to confront a rather unpalatable truth; we are unreliable, inconsistent people who don't know our own minds.

We are not so aware of the hidden forces at work generated by the social expectations of being asked about our plans in front of another, which push us into making a prediction at variance with what we would really do in the privacy of our own un-observed lives.

Having made the prediction, we then work to fall into line with itOne of the most famous experiments in social psychology which demonstrated the power of expectation is a 1977 study in which men were shown photographs of a woman to whom they would be talking by phone. The woman in the pictures was randomised to being either extremely physically attractive or unattractive (as rated by other independent observers).

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What the men taking part didn't know was that the psychologists had told a little white lie, and the photographs were not only randomly assigned to the men, but they also did not correspond to the women with whom they had the phone conversation.

While it's surprise the men behaved differently during the phone conversation depending on their (manipulated) beliefs on her physical appearance, the surprising finding was that independent ratings of the women's segments of the conversations revealed that females whose conversational partners believed them to be less appealing actually behaved and sounded less attractively.

The women had also been kept completely in the dark by the psychologists about the photograph manipulation. This effect, therefore, must have been mediated through the men's behaviour. One possibility is that the men who were talking to someone they believed to be unattractive were less affable than men who believed they were talking to an attractive woman. This in turn had an impact on the way the women responded, and then the way they came over to an independent observer.

Just in case you are starting to think that self-fulfilling prophecies only inhabit the obscure world of experimental psychology, remember we are living through a banking crisis and suffering its long term impact, and banking crises are a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because a rumour starts that a bank may fail, this precipitates a run on that bank, which in itself inevitably leads to its collapse.

This is why Chancellors hot-foot it to the nearest TV studio to "steady the markets" at the slightest hint of such runs on major financial institutions. Governments, and the whole financial system, live in perennial terror of the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Already we suspect you may want to take issue with some of the ideas we have presented. If you do, or are just curious about the power of expectation, why not take part in the psychology experiment we are running as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. It will merely mean coming along on Friday and submitting to some easy and fun psychological tests.

We promise to debrief you afterwards and reveal some preliminary results.

We don't know whether you will take part or not, but we do predict that if you do, you will learn more about a key psychological phenomenon which you could deploy to your advantage in the future, and we predict that you will have some fun along the way.

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• Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist and professor for public understanding of psychiatry at Gresham College, London. Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College, London.

They will be running the Power of Expectation Experiment on at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh – see for full details.