Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Amy Showalter, a national authority on government relations best practices, grassroots and PAC influence.
Are some constituents more memorable than others? Do lawmakers and their staff have better mental recall of some constituents and thus inflate their importance? The research says yes, and that lawmakers use mental shortcuts known as heuristics to help them remember constituents and make decisions. Knowledge of these shortcuts can help you enhance your advocacy strategy.
A 2010 study of 41 congressional offices found that the picture in legislators’ minds of the constituents they represent is in fact “limited and flawed” thanks to mental shortcuts that determine who they “see” and “don’t see.” She concludes that despite the best intentions, “cognitive limitations” prevent legislators from fully representing their districts.
What does the legislator “see” when looking at constituents? The study found that, above all, two factors will greatly increase the likelihood that a sub constituency is remembered by the legislative office: regular contact and money.
The financial aspect should not be confused with the quid pro quos that animate campaign finance reform enthusiasts. Rather, the report found that “financial contributions shape the pre-conscious stage of representation and can have a corrupting influence on constituency representation even when legislators are not active accomplices.” In other words, it’s natural to remember people who invested in your career via a campaign contribution, but that doesn’t translate to being an accomplice to bribery.
So, knowing what we know, how can you make your messages memorable:
1. Are your stakeholders who participate financially in the political system a part of your grassroots community?
2. Pursue consistent contact, particularly vivid (translation: proximity) contact.
3. Frequently presented information is more easily recalled.
4. Familiarity of the issue as it relates to major constituent groups is more easily recalled. How can you demonstrate that your organization is an important presence in the district?
5. Issue salience. The more prominent the issue, the more it is, in the researcher’s words, “overvalued” by staff, which is why it’s more easily remembered. How can you best position your issue, particularly in key legislative districts?
6. Pre-existing attitudes and values. Is the information being presented consistent with the staffer’s belief system? If it fits with the staff’s confirmation bias, they judge the information as more important and also overvalue it. (This explains why staff and legislators who encounter town hall meeting protestors view them as “trolls” if they disagree with them, and “authentic advocates” when they reinforce their issue positions. This applies to the left with the Tea Party and the right with ACA supporters)
7. Numbers matter. The number of constituents affected in each district makes staff more likely to recall issue information. Know who is impacted, where they are, and how to engage them.
The bottom line is that the human mind operates the same whether you are a lawmaker, legislative staffer or grassroots influencer. People use heuristics to recall information because it makes life easier. And busy, harried “legislative elites” probably resort to heuristics more than others, simply because of the volume of information they must filter. Do their thinking for them. Position and present your information in a way that makes recall easy for them.