Voter turnout in the United States is low. In last year’s midterm elections, only 36 percent of eligible voters turned out. Voter turnout is also unequal: educated, wealthier, and older voters are much more likely to vote. These patterns shape the election outcomes we see and the public policies that get implemented.
Unfortunately, most approaches to address low and unequal turnout tend to fall short. Many get-out-the-vote efforts by political campaigns have small effects. Worse still, many of these efforts actually seem to make turnout inequalities more extreme — they tend to disproportionately benefit the wealthy, educated people who already vote in large numbers.
Likewise, in-school civics education programs that teach adolescents knowledge and facts about government or target students’ cognitive abilities have failed to encourage people to vote.
My work takes a different approach. Recently, psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists have discovered that a set of psychological and social skills that children develop while in school are just as important — if not more so — than measures of cognitive ability for their success in school and beyond.
The most well known skill is the ability to delay gratification often symbolized by the marshmallow test. In the original version of this test, researchers at Stanford offered kids the opportunity to have one marshmallow now, or two if they were willing to wait a few minutes. The kids who lasted longer, they said, were better at delaying gratification, something that isn’t quite captured by standard measures of intelligence or cognitive skills.
Although scholars have debated the factors that help kids delay gratification, there is no doubt that skills like these affect virtually every aspect of our lives. Things like grit or tenacity, empathy, efficacy (believing in yourself), self-control, and social skills all matter immensely. And my recent research suggests that they matter for voting, too.
I recently analyzed data from the Fast Track program — an early-childhood, in-school program that targeted kids’ psychological and social skills. In 1991-93, Fast Track randomly assigned some incoming kindergarteners to this program, which continued through elementary school. The program used school curriculum, after school programs, and home visits to teach kids how to regulate their individual motivations, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and to work well with others.
This early childhood program had a large impact on voter turnout — even though a long time elapsed between the end of the program and when these kids became eligible to vote. I calculated the percentage who voted at least once between 2004 and 2012. As the graph below shows, those who participated in Fast Track as kids voted at a rate 11-14 percentage points higher when they became adults, compared with those who did not participate in the program. That is a 40 percent increase.
Moreover, this effect was largest among the poorest individuals — those least likely to vote at the beginning of the program.
Fast Track appears to have been effective because it taught children to regulate their motivations, emotions, thoughts, and behavior and to work productively with others. Those who developed these skills had the motivations necessary to participate in politics and appear to be more equipped to follow through on their intentions to participate, even when distractions or obstacles got in their way.
More work remains to be done to see just how psychological and social skills help encourage people to vote — and I’m actively involved in research trying to do so. Nevertheless, these experimental results are promising and have important policy implications.
Currently, scholars and practitioners strongly disagree about how much emphasis schools should place on teaching psychological and social skills. My work suggests that schools should place more attention on this.
And although I do not believe we should abandon other methods of mobilizing citizens, it may be time to reorient civics education so that it focuses not only on knowledge of government, but also on real skills that help encourage active participation in politics.
John Holbein is a PhD Candidate at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.