Naked voting: why elections are vulnerable

Elections affect weighty issues: in Egypt, it’s Islam versus secularism; in Taiwan, it’s pro-China versus anti-China; and in the U.S., “it’s the economy, stupid.” With so much at stake, casting a vote should be a careful, well-reasoned decision. But research shows our votes are, well, vulnerable to the elements. Here are just three ways that misguided thinking shapes elections:

1.Emotions trump intellect

When Jay Leno takes to the street to ask people about politics and the news, he finds some dramatic examples of unaware voters. When asked what a gubernatorial election is, one bright-eyed college student declared it to be a Russian election. A journalist failed to name a single candidate running for governor, saying she would gather information the morning of the election. She is not alone; 18% of voters make up their minds on Election Day.

In the absence of knowledge, how do we decide? Strong negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are extremely persuasive, so we flock to the candidate who represents security. Often only the most shocking messages get through. The same journalist, when asked about the political ads she had seen in recent months, could only recall that a candidate was photoshopped to look like Pinocchio. Since campaign strategists know the staying power of emotions, more than 80% of political ads try to link negative emotions to the opponent.

2. Intangibles persuade us

Gerald Ford trying a tamale

In his book “The Reasoning Voter,” political scientist Samuel Popkin argues that seemingly minor incidents influence a person’s “gut rationality” – a set of mental shortcuts we lean on heavily to make voting decisions. Popkin cites an example from the 1976 Republican primaries. During his Texas campaign against Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford attempted to eat a tamale, but he failed to take off its inedible cornhusk wrapper. This vividly suggested to Mexican-American voters that he didn’t understand them. Reagan went on to win Texas convincingly, thanks in part to the Mexican-American vote. More generally, research suggests we are all unconsciously swayed or “primed” by cues much more subtle than Ford’s tamale incident. Consider that seeing the American flag in a controlled experiment tipped voters toward the Republican Party. None of those voters thought the flag swayed them. And why would they? The unconscious serves us feelings and associations without telling us where they came from.

There’s a flag, look away!

3. Paradoxical motives

Your vote is irrelevant. In electing the President, the U.S. Electoral College is designed so that a single vote will never be “the difference-maker” (unless that vote is cast by Kevin Costner). And most elections are too big for one deciding vote—just the margin of error from mishandled ballots is thousands of votes. So why do we vote in the first place? In part, we act on societal pressure to carry out our civic duty, but rational choice theorist Satoshi Kanazawa argues for a more surprising factor. In 1998, Kanazawa tested voting patterns from three consecutive national elections on a stochastic learning model of voter turnout. The results confirmed his hypothesis that the act of voting is influenced like any other behavior – through reinforcement. Those who vote for the winner in one election are much more likely to vote in the next, and vice versa. The implication? Our votes are often not just socially conformist but also backward-looking.

Why we shouldn’t worry:

As we learn the number of ways our decisions can unconsciously go astray, feeling vulnerable is understandable. But it is important to consider just how many factors go into each decision we make. While the American flag tends to help Republicans, it is just one amongst countless variables. Likewise, Gerald Ford made many more mistakes in his Texas campaign than just biting into a tamale shuck. So yes, we have irrational tendencies and heuristics, but they pull us both ways and get diluted over time. By and large they might balance one another out.

Read more:
When it’s head versus heart, the heart wins (Daily Beast)

Effects of negative political campaigns (meta-analysis)

A single exposure to the American Flag shifts support toward Republicanism for up to 8 months

Satoshi Kanazawa on why people vote