What Does it Take to Get Legislative Staff to Remember Your Information? How to Prevent “Senior Moments” Among Legislative Staff

Those of you who have hired us for our grassroots advocacy workshops know about the prevalence and power of heuristic persuasion techniques, as well as how to combat heuristic decision making on the part of legislators and their staff. Kristina Miler (not Miller) of the University of Illinois is one of the first researchers to examine how “political and legislative elites” use heuristics to recall information presented by constituents. All grassroots professionals and lobbyists should be aware of Miler’s findings.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts, and their use is rooted firmly in the psychological literature. Heuristics are an efficient way for anyone to make decisions (although there are of course disadvantages to this approach), and legislators and their staff are no different than the rest of us humans when it comes to using mental shortcuts. This research sought to find out what factors encourage legislative staff to use heuristics in recalling information from constituents.

Miler conducted research with 41 congressional offices. Her team interviewed legislative staff who were responsible for environmental issues, as the issue in question was a legislative proposal affecting wetlands policy. The study sample of congressional offices was selected to represent current political party, seniority, region and committee membership structures.

Their findings are below. Please remember as you review this list that it relates to information recall only – it is only  one part of the persuasion puzzle. (Of which my colleague Dr. Kelton Rhoads has determined there are not “6 easy principles” or “10 tips”, but rather about 100 tactics you can use depending on the situation and influence prospect. Successful influence is customized!)

How do “legislative elites” recall your information?

  • Frequently presented information is more easily recalled.
  • Familiarity of the issue as it relates to major constituent groups is more easily recalled.
  • Issue salience. The more vivid the issue, the more it is, in the researcher’s words, “overvalued” by staff, which is why it’s more easily remembered.
  • Pre-existing attitudes – Is the information being presented consistent with the staffer’s belief system? If so, staffers judge the information as more important and also “overvalue” it.
  • Numbers matter – the numbers of constituents affected in each district makes staff more likely to recall information about an issue.

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 other professionals, simply because of the volume of information they filter.

The bottom line? Remember that your audience uses heuristics to recall information, which can impact decision making. If they can’t easily remember your information, you’ll have to spend more time and effort to be heard.

If you suspect your information isn’t being taken into consideration with “legislative elites,” engage in vivid communications (translation: proximity). Demonstrate that your organization is indeed a “major constituent group.” Communicate frequently. And, if possible, find a value match with your information and the person you are trying to persuade.