Positive Reinforcement and the "I Voted" Sticker Selfie

by Claire Anderson

In our dog training programs, our methods are based in positive reinforcement, which is when we reward behaviors we like to increase the likelihood of that behavior happening again. There’s a reason that positive reinforcement (and not punishment-based training) is such a thing right now: it’s been proven to be extremely effective because it’s based on the science of how our brains learn.

 Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

So what does positive reinforcement have to do with voting during an election?

Well, in theory, voting should be inherently reinforcing because we should feel motivated to participate in our democracy. But we all know this isn’t the case. Our lack of motivation is proof that the need is really that immediate—it’s direct reinforcement that modifies behavior.

Our lack of motivation is proof that the need is really that immediate—it’s direct reinforcement that modifies behavior.

Basically, when you receive your “I Voted” sticker after you vote, it’s just like when your dog receives a treat for a sit!

But, there’s even more to it. During this midterm election, you probably noticed a lot of people posting a selfie proudly wearing their “I Voted” sticker on social media. When these posts receive engagement in the form of views, likes, shares, and comments from our friends and followers, our brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine, known as the “reward molecule”, is a mood-booster that is often released after certain gratifying behaviors—like getting “likes” on your voting selfie!

Because the simple action of posting online is usually immediately rewarded with social engagement, the act of posting itself becomes inherently reinforcing because of this prior conditioning. A reinforcement loop!

So voting, which can easily feel like a chore, suddenly feels rewarding to the voter, who is likely to repeat this behavior, regardless of the outcome of the race.

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What does this all mean? Well, put simply, it means positive reinforcement works!

Here’s a quick think-piece: if we removed the social media aspect and instead rewarded voters with money when they voted, it’s quite likely that voter turnout would increase, (or at least we’d bet our money on it). If we can apply other ways to make voting more reinforcing, like the “I voted” sticker, we could potentially see voting numbers rise to where they ought to be.

Midterm voter turn-out is at an all time high in 2018, which is a fantastic thing for our democracy and our country. We’re not saying that this record turn-out is a direct result of stickers and selfies, but it certainly doesn’t hurt! Behaviorally speaking, if we made the act of voting and civic engagement a little more reinforcing, imagine the possibilities. Perhaps we offer donuts next election!

Thanks for voting everyone!

Want more? Victoria Stilwell wrote an excellent piece on the emotional life of dogs and the effects of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.