Examining underlying reasons why we vote how we vote.

You have watched the debates, pondered the issues, and endured more campaign commercials than you ever wanted to see. Even with all of those good-citizen factors in place, you don't have the full equation for the votes you will cast on Election Day. >>> An array of other variables play into voting. They all are about you.

When psychologists look at campaigns and elections, they see riveting details that don't appear in the civics textbooks -- powerful, hidden influences on choices voters make at the polls.

"Our understanding of politics and political behavior for decades has been dominated by a rational-choice model in which people are engaged in deliberative thought and calculation," says Psychology Professor Eugene Borgida.

"The work in psychology suggests something very different," he says. "When we are asked why we evaluated a candidate the way we did, it's not as if we zoom into the prefrontal cortex, grab the real reason, and cite that reason. What we are more likely to do is tap into a pool of culturally accepted explanations and spout them, even though our preferences are being driven by other factors."

Research in political psychology does not suggest that "there is massive political idiocy in the land," Borgida says. Quite the contrary, the research reveals the political person as a complex decision maker who deploys emotions, values, and cultural understanding along with reason at the voting booth.

In a soon-to-be released book, The Psychology of Democratic Citizenship, Borgida and his coeditor colleagues John Sullivan, Regents Professor of Political Science, and Christopher Federico, Associate Professor of Psychology and Political Science, and director of the University's Center for the Study of Political Psychology, offer a look into that fascinating process.

Political passions

You are in a restaurant, taking your fork to the salad, when the couple at the next table launch a rant about the presidential campaign. Everything they spout is contrary to your beliefs. Your fork expresses the irritation rising within you. The salad is the victim. Jab, jab, jab. Why is your blood boiling hotter than the soup the waiter is setting before you?

We know from classic studies that political partisanship is a powerful loyalty that often is a legacy handed from parents to children. New research suggests that partisan inclinations are situated in parts of the brain that have been linked to emotions. "Insofar as those structures control our feelings and fears, it may shed some light on the passion we have for partisan politics because it's coming from the same source as our fears and our anxieties and the way we process threat," Borgida says.

Studies do not give a single, precise cerebral address for partisanship, however. The brain operates in complex systems, not isolated hot spots for each task. "We can't point to certain substructures of the brain and say, 'Well, liberal ideology resides over here and conservative ideology resides over there,' " Borgida says. Still, psychologists expect research to help explain why many people are passionate and steadfast in their partisan positions.

Race and Gender

During this year's primary election season, Democrats wrestled with tough trade-offs. If they leaned toward Senator Barack Obama, were they sexist? If they favored Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, were they racist?

Very few would bluntly say that a woman couldn't handle the duties of the Oval Office or that an African American had no place at the top of the ballot. The bias that sways votes is far more subtle, yet it is real. New studies show that voters' decisions are powerfully affected by almost unconscious responses to a candidate's skin color or gender.

"We may not think we harbor general antipathies toward women or African Americans," Borgida says. "Yet when they are running for a political office that is the most powerful in the land, this hidden bias affects our perceptions of them, and our willingness to support them."

One surprising finding is that subtle gender bias may be more stubborn than racial prejudice. There is no doubt that race had a mighty impact on Obama's candidacy. The bias Clinton and other women candidates encounter is more hidden and subtle. That can make it more difficult to address, Borgida says.

Women seeking high office set up a psychological mismatch: Voters want to elect someone who is decisive, authoritative, and forceful  --  those qualities that run contrary to the softness and compassion expected of women. Can people correct such hidden bias? Maybe, Borgida says. Most people think of prejudice in blanket terms: Are you for women's rights? Of course. They don't necessarily look inside themselves for bias that could be activated in certain contexts and inhibited in others. "It's not easy because some of these ways of thinking are so deeply ingrained," Borgida says.

Knowledge that Counts

Quick quiz: A) Do you typically form opinions on almost everything? B) Do you prefer to reserve judgment and remain neutral? If you answered yes to A and no to B, you have what psychologists call a "need to evaluate."

Federico is finding in studies of students and national survey data that your strong need helps you make more effective use of political knowledge.

For most of us, absorbing political information is like dining in a restaurant. We don't begin from scratch to form our positions on issues and candidates. We choose from menus that "chefs" prepared for us. In our metaphorical political diner, the chefs are the elites: candidates, journalists, professional activists, and academics. For better or worse, those elites define the ideas that go into political choices and determine what it means to be a liberal, a conservative, or a middle-of-the-roader.

Voters may malign the elites, but they also need them because the nasty reality is that most citizens couldn't pass a civics test. "They know there is a thing called a liberal and a thing called a conservative," Federico says. "They quite often identify themselves as one or the other. ... However, only a minority of those people truly understand the content of liberalism or conservatism and the dimension that separates the two."

Let's assume that readers of this article, though, are among the well-informed minority. Your deep knowledge and clear-cut ideology make it easier for you to sort through the cacophony of political voices. You don't have to sort issue by issue because your ideology gives you a network of interrelated positions on a wide range of choices. "It's a shortcut," Federico says.

"It means that I have answers at my disposal to many different questions," Federico says. "It's not just one question like 'Should we raise taxes?' or 'Should abortion be legal?' "

Of course, there are true independents, well-informed voters who prefer to evaluate candidates issue by issue  --  say yes to gas-tax hikes and no to legalized abortion.

In any case, Federico finds that people with a strong need to evaluate make more effective use of their knowledge. "The big take-home message is that effective knowledge is contingent on having the desire to evaluate things," he says. "Having knowledge isn't enough to make people politically or ideologically engaged. They also have to approach the world with what you might call an evaluative eye. They have to care enough about the world to know what they like and what they dislike."

Terror and Crisis

Think back to the 2000 election. The Twin Towers marked New York City's skyline. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan. In just eight years, war and terror have come to dominate our national psyche and our politics.

Most voters by now have a sense of where this year's candidates stand on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Less well known are the deep-seated mechanisms that guide voting choices when danger threatens.

Psychologists have studied the dynamics that bear on public confidence and trust in political leaders in times of crisis. One body of research involves terror management theory, inspired by the writings of Ernest Becker in the 1973 book The Denial of Death.

The theory is based on the dark idea that support for certain leaders comes in part from the need to allay fear of death. In experiments, psychologists have aroused the fear by assigning participants to tasks such as "Jot down what you think will happen to you as you physically die." Then they exposed the participants to campaign statements reflecting different leadership styles. The style that wins favor in the face of fear is the charismatic leader who can engage others in visions of holding strong against danger and participating together in something great.

President George W. Bush apparently portrays some of those charismatic qualities. In the studies, support for him jumped after participants were reminded of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Of course, sophisticated candidates use this knowledge to manipulate voters. A famous example is the "Daisy Girl" ad that Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign aired in 1964. As a girl plucked daisy petals, her count of the petals morphed into the countdown for a nuclear blast.

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During his 2004 reelection race, Bush routinely roused audiences with claims that America was constantly under threat of attack.

A key question this year is whether fear of terrorism is giving way to worries over mortgage payments and fuel prices. That's a different psychological dynamic, Borgida says.

At the polls

Myriad other psychological factors follow voters into the voting booth. One of the most powerful is the most simple: order of names on a ballot. The polling place can make a difference too; chances for a school-funding referendum improve if a school is the polling place. A candidate's face can frighten or reassure a voter because our minds make blink-like judgments in reaction to facial features.

As the campaigns heat up for the finish, we still should believe in the value of gearing up our brains for rational and deliberative evaluation of the candidates and the issues. What the psychologists are saying
to us is that a parallel --  arguably more powerful -- process will take place deep inside us at the same time.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 25, 2008 2:46 PM.

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