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The Interested Bystander Effect: Why Even People Who Care About The World Don’t Vote

We know plenty about the issues, we just don’t act–unless there’s something in it for us.

The Interested Bystander Effect: Why Even People Who Care About The World Don’t Vote
[Top Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images]

I’ll admit it: I vote in national elections regularly, but shirk my more local voting duties unless there is a person or proposition on the ballot that’s relevant to me. I’m not alone.

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New research supported by Google’s Civic Innovation team finds a significant percentage of residents in the U.S. are interested bystanders–people who are aware of what’s happening in the world but don’t take civic action–and that when these interested bystanders do engage in civic duties, politics often do not play a part. It turns out that people tend to be part of civic life only when they have relevant personal and professional skills or interests. They don’t act out of a sense of general altruism.

“As Google has been developing its awareness and understanding of what people want, it’s been exploring the question of what it is about this group of people…[who] are aware of the world but not actively voicing their opinions or taking action. What can we do, and what can others in the civic ecosystem to do?” says Kate Krontiris, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who worked on the project.

Flickr user Mrs. Gemstone

The study, which surveyed over 2,000 people, came up with some surprising findings. One important point: nearly half of all people in the U.S. are interested bystanders. People are, by and large, more aware of what’s going on in the world than you might think.

But that doesn’t mean they’re doing anything with that awareness. “There’s a misalignment between how interested bystanders think they should engage civically, and how they engage,” says Krontiris. Interested bystanders say they know that voting in local elections are a better investment overall than voting in national elections–and yet, they vote more in national elections. Many bystanders report that they prefer to stay away from political topics entirely with family and friends, because they associate politics with conflict.

The most common politics-related civic action reported by respondents was signing a petition–but people tended to only remember that they signed one, forgetting what the petition was actually about.

“They feel like what they’re doing isn’t good enough,” says Krontiris. “They indicate feeling a bit embarrassed by this.”

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Here’s the good news: While interested bystanders associate the political aspects of civic life with conflict and shame, they are attracted to community involvement, like volunteering. Primary motivations are are personal interests and expertise, as well as emotional fulfillment. Voting, at least as it stands today, just doesn’t provide that fulfillment. It’s an obligation.

Flickr user Erik Hersman

This, says Krontiris, is why the research is so important. Imagine if all the interested bystanders who don’t go to the voting booth suddenly became motivated to participate in politics. “We need to think about the mechanisms of voting,” she says. “Voting no longer fits the way we live. But it might be filled with meaning if there were more direct connections to community and social activities that give people satisfaction.”

For some of the many startups and organizations that are trying to encourage public engagement through technology, this means harnessing the real motivations of interested bystanders: self interest. Products that require people to do things without getting a clear personal benefit in return just won’t work.

The study’s research has already helped inform the design and structure of Google’s Election Now product. “It’s incumbent upon us as a community to be more creative,” says Krontiris.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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