My yard, my candidate: the social psychology of lawn signs

Do lawn signs like these have any effect on prospective voters? Flickr/Animantis

As the November elections draw nearer, front yards across America are sprouting campaigns signs broadcasting their chosen political candidates.

These lawn signs have been a traditional part of politics in the United States for well over 60 years, and have remained commonplace even in the age of Facebook and other new media. Lawn signs can often feel ubiquitous in the build-up to major elections, yet in actuality most Americans don’t display them. However, more than enough voters are posting signs for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on their front yards - and apartment balconies and businesses and dorm windows and roadsides - to keep the tradition alive and well.

Some communities seem to be a sea of signs all supporting the same candidate, perhaps with the odd sign here and there that defiantly displays a contrary opinion. Other communities are more divided politically, and in places such as these lawn signs are a critical way of showing just what side you stand on. Yet whether people live in an area that is strongly in favour of one party or one that is more contested, displaying a lawn sign is more than just campaigning for a specific politician, doing one’s civic duty, or even conforming to neighbourhood norms.

Lawn signs are also about communicating our group membership to others, something that fulfils some very basic psychological needs. People want to feel accepted, and putting up a lawn sign literally symbolises that they are part of a group. What’s more, they gain strength from their group memberships and symbols. For example, Chris Miller at the University of Minnesota found that after the 2008 election, signs supporting the victorious Obama stayed up longer than signs supporting his defeated opponent John McCain. This suggests that people use lawn signs to “bask in the reflected glory” of their group’s success and “cut off the reflected failure” of their group’s losses. Thus, lawn signs can help us feel accepted and feel good about ourselves.

Yet despite their widespread usage and the psychological advantages just described, whether or not lawn signs are effective in winning elections is not clear. For presidential campaigns, lawn signs are all about social influence: capturing the all-important swing voters and motivating supporters to actually turn up at the polls come Election Day. Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence supporting that lawn signs can achieve these goals. However, recent research from the Attitudes and Group Identity Lab at the University of California, Davis, indirectly suggests lawn signs can be an effective source of social influence, though that this effectiveness may depend upon how far away the election is.

With my collaborator Alison Ledgerwood, we found that temporal distance - whether something will happen in the near future versus distant future - influences the degree to which people are affected by majority opinions versus single individuals. In our experiments, undergraduate students read about proposed changes to a political issue that they were told would go into effect in the near or distant future, as well how the majority of other students ostensibly felt about these changes.

When the changes were expected to occur in the distant future, our participants’ own opinions on the issue were more influenced by group opinion; that is, they conformed to the majority. But when the changes were expected to occur in the near future, participants’ opinions were less susceptible to group influence. These results complement findings from an earlier paper by our lab that suggest as events draw nearer in time, people are more influenced by the opinion of a single individual.

Lawn signs supporting presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Congressman Frank Wolf in Virignia. Flickr/WDanRoberts

But what does this mean for lawn signs? As the election is currently over a month away, a large bloc of signs for Obama is likely to have more of an effect on a person’s vote than a lone sign for Romney. However, as the weeks fly by and the election draws nearer, a single sign on a specific person’s yard may start to have more of an effect.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that large numbers of signs for one candidate will ever be meaningless, even if Election Day is close. Distance affects the information people attend to for a reason: distance can lead to abstract, big-picture thinking (“why”) whereas proximity can lead to concrete, fine-details thinking (“how”). Even as the election draws close, encouraging people to think about the big picture can put them in an abstract mindset that pays more attention to the majority of lawn signs.

Thus, there’s more to lawn signs than tradition and a candidate’s name. It’s not simply an issue of which side has more signs posted, but also the mindset of the person viewing the sign. And lawn signs may not only help the candidate, but also may help the person posting the sign meet some of their basic psychological needs.

Not bad for laminated cardboard.