There are many factors that affect our voting decisions. Party affiliation, values, education level, religion, economic status, and many other factors help to swing our vote in any election. To say that a single factor could lead to our vote would be almost always impossible.
Still, there tends to be an “x-factor” influencing the outcome of elections that is less tangible than simply political ideology alone. Researchers have spent years analyzing the psychology of voting habits to try to figure out just what that mystery element influencing our vote is. As it turns out, there are several unconscious factors that can significantly influence our voting behavior. Read on to discover just which ones may be affecting your own vote.
Unconscious Factors that Influence the Way We Vote
We like to think that our important decisions are always made consciously, but in reality, unconscious thought-processes, emotions and prejudices are almost always involved. That’s why our voting behaviors can be so easily influenced by subtle psychological cues. In fact, according to Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University, “all decision-making is unconscious” when it comes to politics.
While there are tons of individual factors that can affect a person’s vote, ranging from the minute details like candidate order on a ballot to bigger racial and gender biases, there are three recurring themes in the psychology of voting that seem to be some of the most significant.
No one likes a negative campaign, but we see more negative attack ads than anything else. That’s with good reason— they work. As it turns out, a negative association is much more likely to make us vote (for the other guy) than a positive association. A lot of this is due to the negativity bias — a phenomenon wherein our brain tends to remember negative information more easily than positive information, and to inform decision-making with negative emotions more than positive ones.
In terms of voting, this means that we are much more likely to vote if we hate one of the candidates than if we simply like one better. Attack ads that make us actually feel a distaste for the actions of one candidate are much more likely to send us running to the polls than an ad that simply shows the good things that candidate has done.
In fact, any negative association with a candidate can impact the likelihood that we vote for them, whether it has anything to do with the actual candidate or not. If we associate a huge natural disaster with a particular incumbent, they tend to lose voters. Even poor weather on the day of the election can hurt the incumbent. Luckily, this goes both ways: a winning season for a popular local team can help local politicians keep their seats. Interestingly, feelings of disgust tend to make us slightly more conservative, perhaps because it triggers our instinct to isolate ourselves from “other” groups.
2. Perception Matters
We all know that we tend to feel unconsciously biased about people based on appearances, but apparently good looks are more important in elections than most people thought. The more attractive candidate has an advantage, especially during times of war. In fact, this effect becomes more pronounced with more exposure to the candidate, which means it can be pretty powerful with today’s never-ending news cycle.
It’s not all about objectively good looks, though. Even more than an attractive politician, we instinctively trust a candidate who appears to be more like us. What defines “like us” depends on the person. For people with underlying racial or gender biases, ethnicity and gender matter a lot more, even if the person does not consciously acknowledge those beliefs.
For those with less pronounced biases, however, the perception that a politician is similar to themselves is what matters. People tend to vote for a candidate who shares their economic status, level of education, or personality traits much more often than a candidate who does not. It’s important to note that these similarities are based on the perception, however, and not the reality. A candidate who talks often about growing up in a poor coal community will often maintain that affinity with working class people, even if the candidate has since become quite wealthy.
3. Fear Works
If you want to encourage a slightly more conservative electorate, some studies show that fear may be the most effective way of cultivating it. When losing a war, in particularly rough economic times, or in other times of fear, the electorate swings right. Still, this effect is limited if there is a conservative incumbent who has not successfully “solved” the problem, as people prefer the incumbent much more strongly when times are good than when change is being demanded.
Some studies, on the other hand, have shown that the biggest psychological impact of fear on voting behavior is simply that the electorate examines political statements much more carefully. Fearful voters carefully search for the truth and distrust candidates found to be lying. That’s one reason that ads preying on people’s fears can backfire so badly.
With all of these factors influencing the vote, some people question whether or not their votes matter at all. After all, isn’t the system rigged by outside factors?
While these unconscious factors do influence the way we vote, they don’t ultimately override logic. If you are absolutely against all politicians who have a certain policy no matter what, no amount of rain or attack ads will be likely to change your mind. These factors simply come into play when you are undecided or can’t choose between a candidate.
Still, if you feel yourself pulled towards or repulsed by a candidate and can’t put your finger on exactly why, it’s possible that subconscious factors may be at play. It may be worth taking an extra look at the candidates to figure out what may be influencing your vote, so that you can decide on your terms. Whatever you decide, though, the most important thing is that you act and vote.
What affects your vote? Let us know in the comments!
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