Electoral Psychology: Do We Have Power Over Our Voting Decisions?

By Lizzie Fu

With the U.S. elections approaching and governments around the world reeling from the devastating effects of COVID-19, understanding how and why people vote has become a heightened topic as many become more vocal about their opinions on politics. Yet, a question emerges: do people really have control over their vote? 

How and why do we vote? What may seem like a simple question is actually quite complicated. Ostensibly, the concept of voting has come to be seen as the fair way to elect government officials, an organized method for the people to have a say in how their country runs. Such a concept leads us to believe that we have the power to influence politics, but as one explores further, it becomes more and more questionable whether one really holds any individual power over their decision.

The Brain and the Vote

When it comes to voting, it turns out that a very specific part of our frontal lobe is responsible for including higher-level information in such a decision. According to a study done by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC) must function properly if voters are to make choices that combine different sources of information about the candidates. Interestingly, those with brain damage affecting other parts of the frontal lobes weighed their decisions the same way healthy individuals did, while those with damage to the LOFC based their decisions solely on simpler information, such as the candidate’s looks.

This makes it seem like individuals without damage to the LOFC make sophisticated, educated choices on their candidates. However, the truth is that the higher-level information used in the LOFC to make the final decision is most likely primarily based on trivial subtleties that we unconsciously notice, particularly factors from our own backgrounds, personalities and instinctive reactions, and the external world. 

Influenced by Nuances

Within ourselves, our views are - and perhaps unsurprisingly to some - largely based on our ethnicity. In fact, someone’s ethnic background says far more about how they will vote than any other factor, including their social class. For example, in the UK in 2010, 68% of ethnic minority voters backed Labour compared with just 16% who voted Conservative. That does not mean minorities agree with the Labour Party’s policies. Research shows many do not. But according to British sociologist Anthony Heath at Oxford University, social pressure comes into play. New arrivals to the UK tend to join established ethnic communities, which have always voted Labour because they believe the party looks after ethnic minorities and that the Conservatives do not.

Furthermore, our inherent personality traits, such as how easily disgusted we might be or whether we prefer simple or complex explanations, have an enormous impact on how we vote. In a study by psychologist David Pizarro from Cornell University, he discovered a correlation between how easily disgusted you are and whether or not you lean conservative or liberal, now termed the “yuck factor”. In a series of experiments, Pizarro showed people disgusting images like open wounds, vomit, and feces. Those who had the strongest physical reactions to the images were the most conservative while the most liberal people weren’t bothered. In the case of preferring complex or simple explanations, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology researched forty-five US senators, tracking their statements for a year. They found that the senators who consistently voted in favor of conservative measures used much more direct language and reasoning than their liberal equivalents. In addition, how risk-taking a person is has also been proven to affect political views. Those who are more prepared to step out of their comfort zone lean more left than those who are not as prepared. 

Nevertheless, the world outside of our own minds and DNA often triumphs in our decision-making. If one is ignorant about politics, they are most likely swayed by the candidate’s looks, but if they are informed, details such as a candidate’s body language and other people’s facial expressions still prevail over their efforts to only strictly use “proper reasoning”. If you live with other voters and frequently interact with friends and family who partake in political discussion, you are far more likely to vote and be more thoughtful about how you will vote. Moreover, you will feel that voting is an act of altruism, as you are taking your personal time and effort to advance the collective good. You will also feel more self-appreciation having voted if you are surrounded by peers who encouraged you to do so. Understandably, your discussions with friends will have a big effect on your political view. If the majority of your friends are very vocal and liberal, you are more likely to lean left due to both peer pressure and being persuaded by their arguments. But this doesn’t have to be people you know. In an experiment that took place during the 1984 presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, a group of psychologists from Syracuse University looked at the facial expressions of a news anchor and the results of the election. They found that when talking about other topics, a news anchor from ABC had no noticeable or significant bias in facial expression compared to his counterparts. Yet, when talking about Reagan, it appeared that he had more positive facial expressions according to a group of randomly selected people. The psychologists then recorded voluntary data and realized that those who watched the ABC voted for Reagan in far greater numbers than those who watched other networks. It’s scary to think how much our brains take in subconsciously. Traits in candidates such as confidence, standing up straight, and walking across the stage to meet their opponent make us lean towards voting for them. Interestingly, the weather on election day also affects our mood and voter turnout. Evidence from the US, Spain, and the Netherlands suggests that for every inch of rain fall on voting day, turnout reduces by around one per cent. Conversely, sunny weather and higher temperatures increase turnout. In short, the small things in our daily lives that theoretically should not factor into our voting decisions really do matter. 

At the end of all this, the question still remains: do we or do we not have power over how we vote? Or, in other words, do we - as “the people” - have a say in government through our votes? For many of us, we will still choose to believe that we have control over our emotions and analytical thinking. We trust ourselves that we are rational and make good decisions based on our own research and logic, that we choose who we vote for because he or she proves to be the most worthy candidate. Yet, according to the research, our own brains may contradict what reason would tell us. Perhaps we are only left to wonder at the paradoxical nature of our minds and must make the best decision we can.  


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