Why It's Easier To Get People To Vote Than To Participate In Research

During the 2012 election, 40% of eligible Americans didn’t vote. That’s far worse than in countries as diverse as Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, Mexico and Turkey.

The reasons are eerily similar to why people don't participate in research studies -- while most people agree that participating in research studies is important, very few actually do so.

Here are the reasons, and why it’s easier to get people to vote than to participate in research.

#1 My participation won't make a difference.

Many eligible voters are under the mistaken impression that the electoral college chooses the winner. Others believe that there are sophisticated statistical techniques used to determine the winner. Either way, they feel as though their participation doesn’t matter.

Why it’s worse in research:

With fancy statistical techniques, many participants may think that researchers don't need adequate sample sizes. The reality is that most of what we know about our health are based on small, flawed studies. Researchers use things like p-value hacking (defined by Wikipedia as a method that uses data mining to uncover patterns that can be presented as statistically significant) to compensate for small sample sizes.

#2 No time in busy schedules.

For high earners, getting to the polls can be an inconvenience, and for lower income individuals, it may be difficult to take time off from work. This is similar to participating in research studies -- who has time for that, right?

Why it’s worse in research:

Casting your vote for the next Presidential candidate might only take a few hours, but participating in a research study may take months, if not years. Individuals may be required to visit a study location multiple times over a short period. The time commitments are so significant -- and with such low return -- that only college students and the seriously ill participate.

#3 Physically getting there is a challenge.

It can be a drag to get to polling locations. Older individuals and those with lower incomes might not have easy access to transportation.

Why it’s worse in research:

Researchers have been slow to adopt technology that makes it easy for people to engage in studies remotely. Most studies take place in major medical centers and academic institutions that require significant travel -- sometimes, even by air.

4) Registration isn't always easy.

Americans move around, and state to state differences in voter registration requirements can be confusing.

Why it’s worse in research:

Before you can participate in the study, you have to find it. This can be a full time job for someone who’s looking for experimental treatments for rare diseases or conditions. The screening process for research studies are rigorous and can be intense: a telephone call, office visit, lots of forms to fill out and sign. And then, you might not be eligible, and you never know exactly why.

5) Feelings of apathy or indifference.

Politics makes many Americans eyes glaze over. It is viewed as boring and distasteful.

Why it’s worse in research:

Researchers use highly technical (and sometimes scary) terminology in recruitment ads. The benefits to the participants aren't often clear, nor enticing. Therefore, it's really difficult for anyone to feel passionate about participation -- unless it’s something that they’re experiencing first hand.

6) Unpleasant experience.

Many voters complain of long lines that waste their time while they wait to vote.

Why it’s worse in research:

Researchers are trained to get the data they need, not in customer service. Therefore, many participants feel like a cow that is jabbed with treatment and then milked for data. The experience is not participant friendly.

In the same way that changes in advanced voting and absentee ballots have improved the voting process, there is hope for the research world. There are new techniques like Community Based Participatory Research that involve participants in all aspects of study design to make them more engaging to different populations. And new technologies, both those specifically geared to the research world and those repurposed from the world of marketing and productivity, are beginning to make an impact.

Higher participation in voter participation creates a healthier democracy. Likewise, greater involvement in research improves the likelihood that researchers will uncover breakthroughs that help us find treatments that improve our lives.

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