The Psychology of voting
Dr Jozelle Miller
October 13, 2020

The Psychology of voting

As we approach another general election in St Vincent and the Grenadines, I have become extremely fascinated by the thought process, present emotional arousal and what may be the ultimate decision at the polls of each voting citizen.

The act of voting is a civic responsibility. It is a demonstration of the individual’s interest in the affairs of the country and it speaks on the voter’s altruistic nature where they are willing to take their personal time and effort to advance what they assume is the collective good of the country, without any guarantee of personal reward.

Political psychology researchers have been studying what encourages voting behavior, and there are many studies which revealed that by appealing to the altruistic nature of an individual and highlighting the concern one should have for the well-being of others, places a responsibility of each person to drive for democratic participation. One researcher reiterated, “Making people feel good by reinforcing the notion that society is grateful for their participation in the political process reminds people that they have a role to play and reinforces their willingness to be responsive.”

Every vote is considered to be priceless, as elections are won and lost within that margin.

Have you ever thought what triggers voters to act? Another study by a University of Toronto, psychology professor argued that voters may be swayed unconsciously by being exposed to ideas or things that trigger feelings of disgust.

In one experiment, he placed participants on a ‘disgust scale’, asking them to rate their agreement with stomach-wrenching statements and situations and then quizzed them on their political ideology. He discovered that those more easily disgusted tended to be politically conservative, and explains this phenomenon by linking political and moral associations to prehistoric human biology. When humans began spending more time in social groups, they developed behaviors that would minimize the risk of contracting disease; this phenomenon is known by psychologists as the ‘behavioral immune system.’

‘The attitudes that flow from the behavioral immune system are things we tend to think of as socially conservative, ‘they are about avoiding groups or situations that are not familiar or may feel uncomfortable because it challenges what you may be accustomed to, and adhering to traditional social practices; holding on to those principles taught during childhood. So in essence many voters, when presented with information that makes them uncomfortable or disgusted about the condition in their country, they would likely hold on to the conservative opinion held traditionally by their families or they are likely to follow the opinions of those considered as significant influencers in their lives.

Another interesting finding as it relates to the psychology of voters is that, “what candidates actually say has little impact on voters’ decisions”…who would have thought this to be so? Many politicians turn their debates into an argument so their supporters dislike the other candidate, but it is noted that if voters like both candidates equally or even if they like both candidates unequally, they will less likely vote, but, if they dislike one candidate predominantly, then they have a much more compelling reason to cast their vote against that person. The findings even elaborated on how the way the candidate dresses, speaks, smells, looks, and stands affect the way voters make their decisions.

One analyst of the United Stated elections noted that your brain tricks you into liking candidates who look like the best leaders regardless of whether or not they actually are.

Here’s how this was discovered:

Researchers were curious about the role facial appearances played in voting behavior so they showed hundreds of people pictures of competing candidates from old congressional elections (USA) and asked them who they thought won. Just by looking at the pictures and knowing nothing about the candidates, people correctly guessed the winner 68.8% of the time.

Even more interestingly, young children who saw pictures of candidates and thought they were choosing a ship captain they would like to go on a journey with, were just as accurate at choosing the winners of elections as the adults.

The results were the same when they tested children from different countries while showing them pictures of candidates from countries that were not their own. Amazing, isn’t it?

What this tells us is that our brains are predisposed to think certain facial features make people look like competent leaders and our first impressions are so strong that we often don’t change our minds about candidates after seeing them.

The following are the assumed traits that convince persons who to vote for:

  • For men, our brains look for symmetrical features, high foreheads, prominent brow ridges and a protruding jaw. These traits convey the strength and dominance that we look for in leaders
  • For women, less is known, though research has shown that healthiness, rather than dominance, makes them look more electable.
  • Both sexes are also subject to the same common phenomenon that people who are more attractive are more well-liked. So, next time you catch yourself liking a candidate before you’ve heard much of what they have to say, think about these studies and think again about why you like them.

    How to be a more rational voter:

Having read what the various research papers have shown in terms of the ways your unconscious mind influences the way you vote, I want to teach you how to be a more rational voter. If you got anything from this article I hope it’s that you shouldn’t trust your first impression when deciding who to vote for; it should go much deeper than that.

Use the following tips as a guide:

  • Don’t just go with your gut. Voting well means making your choice from a standpoint of informed consideration and with an eye toward the common good. Suppose you go to a doctor and ask for advice about an illness—you’d expect the doctor to have your interests at heart and to think rationally about your symptoms,” the same should apply as a voter. “Voters owe the same thing to each other and the electorate. Vote for everyone’s best interest, and when you’re forming your political beliefs, form them based on information and learning, not on the basis of quick thinking, anger or bias….”
  • Don’t get all your news from social media. Many persons have unfollowed, unfriended contacts on Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp because their political views differ to that of their friends and family. Doing so may have its benefit of filtering negative personal opinions but it can also give rise to narrowed political views and groupthink… So I would advise try broadening your news sources by paying attention to print, radio or TV political commentaries, especially to discourses coming directly from the candidates mouths.
  • Be a truth seeker rather than a political fan. Do not run the risk of overvaluing any information that supports your preexisting views, while ignoring or dismissing anything that cuts the other way. A responsible truth-seeker would make a special effort to seek out information sources with views opposed to your own. As a truth seeker, embrace information that provides a counterweight to your own biases; do not shy away from hearing opposing arguments either because having your viewpoint challenged will allow you a better vantage point to make a more informed decision, having weighed both sides.