Voting is widely regarded as the opportunity to have a say in our government, but some studies show that we may not have much of a choice in the process after all.
Nathaly Arce Soto • 2021 Science Communication Series Cohort
The past 2020 presidential elections saw a surprising success in voter turnout when a record-breaking amount of people cast their votes to exercise their fundamental right. Since then, political scientists have wondered whether a similar surprise could take place in the upcoming midterm elections.
Whether the outcome is surprising or not, one thing is certain. The large voter turnout that was seen last fall was due to a collective feeling and belief that we all individually had a choice of whether to vote or not, and given everything the country had been through in that tormenting year of 2020, that choice could potentially lead to some significant, pronounced, and much needed change in the US. With that conviction, many Americans went out to vote feeling good about their participation in democracy and feeling like they truly had a say in their government.
But what if a considerable portion of our voting behaviors were out of our control? What if the choices behind our voting behaviors were psychologically influenced by outside factors? Psychologists have found research evidence that says that this may be more likely than what we would like to think.
Researchers have worked on studies that have helped create a new field called political neuroscience, and within this field there’s been findings on subconscious psychological processes that influence voter behavior.
One study from 2017 showed that things as trivial as the weather can have a significant impact on an individual’s voting behavior. Scientists have found that physiological arousal caused by temperature changes can affect voting behaviors through the mechanisms outlined by something called the Excitation Transfer Theory. This theory explains the phenomenon of how one stimulus can leave a residual excitation from a response to that stimulus that persists and can later amplify or intensify the excitatory response to another unrelated stimulus (Van Assche et al., 2017). Basically, arousal from a stimulus can influence the response we have to another stimulus or situation. In case of the weather, it’s been shown through data gathered from presidential elections from 1960 till 2016 that higher temperatures can influence a voter to vote for the incumbent candidate or party more so than when there is cooler weather (Van Assche et al., 2017). These findings are explained by other studies, which have shown that since bad weather affects mood, voters tend to cast ballots that exhibit risk aversion in greater numbers when there is unfavorable weather on election day, so bad weather (like high temperatures) can influence a voter to choose a candidate they perceive to be less risky (Bassi, 2013).
As such, in accordance to the Excitation Transfer Theory, many incidental things can influence a person’s behavior when it comes to voting, whether it’s personal situations, atmospheric events, or even the outcome of a football game. Nevertheless, arbitrary events are not the only way our electoral actions can be changed. Voting behaviors can also be altered through deliberate attempts at influencing our psychological processing.
The obvious culprits of this psychological influence are political campaigns. For years now, political campaigns have been using a psychological tactic where they have exploited the effect of the “negative bias.” This phenomenon alludes to the human proclivity to register and remember negative stimuli more effectively than positive or neutral stimuli (Soroka, Fournier & Nir, 2019). This bias is the reason why we tend to never forget bad first impressions or why trauma is so hard to overcome. In the political field, campaigns use this tactic to influence voters against an opposing candidate by flooding campaign ads with negative information.
Researcher Jon Krosnick from Stanford University has performed studies on this tactic and has found that the political use of negative bias can trigger the emotion of fear on audiences. Political advertisements or speech that employ fear rhetoric are correlated with a higher individual ability to remember the content of what was said and people feeling more encouraged to learn more information about the candidates or policies expressed. In contrast, the opposite is true for campaign ads and speech that use positive and hopeful rhetorics (Brader, 2005). Ted Brader, a political psychology professor at the University of Michigan, says “fear ads heighten attentiveness and weaken people’s reliance on partisan habits, while enthusiasm ads reassure you, and reaffirm the choice you’ve already made” (2012).
Precisely because of this is why, during the months leading up to the 2020 election in November, Americans were bombarded with fear rhetoric from both parties in the hopes of attracting votes. Multiple companies, brands, celebrities, and social media applications also engaged in attempts to influence voter turnout by launching aggressive campaigns that encouraged people to register and vote. Remember when it felt like you couldn't go anywhere online without being smacked with a reminder to vote? When we would wake up every morning with news of Trump and Biden taking jabs at each other?
The constant reminders served as a way to influence voter behavior and decision-making by relying on availability heuristics, which is when people utilize information that’s immediately available to them to make a decision. This is why campaigns now use “psychographic targeting” as a way to win elections.
Psychographics are most commonly known in the context of business marketing in which ads take psychological information from a person’s buying habits, hobbies, interests, etc. to promote and sell a product. In the context of politics, psychographics are produced by using information that people share online to identify subconscious biases and develop political messages with the purpose to influence voting behaviors by targeting their fears and concerns (Halpern, 2018). I If this sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably already heard about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
In 2016, the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica spent $800,000 to obtain the private information of 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge in order to engage in psychographic targeting. This company utilized people’s information to develop messages that appealed to individuals’ ideologies and beliefs (Halpern, 2018). For instance, a conservative leaning user may have received repeated messages or ads about gun rights or Trump’s immigration laws. Affluent individuals with relatively neutral stances may have received posts or emails about how good Trump would be for the economy and their pockets. These tactics were deliberate and intentional efforts to swing voter behavior, and as social media continues to rise as an important medium for political campaigning, these tactics are expected to become the norm in election campaigns.
If companies and campaigns invest so much money and resources to “inform” our political choices in effective ways, how can we, as individuals, be sure that our voting decisions are truly ours?
These questions may be hard to answer, but awareness of these neuropolitical tactics may help dispel the influence that these have on our voting behaviors. By creating conscious voting practices and paying extra attention to political campaign strategies so that these can be easily identified, their influence on individual voting behaviour can be combated. Being aware of these tactics can lessen the influence they have over us since that recognition can prevent us from unknowingly being fooled or misled. So, as midterm elections loom around the corner, we need to keep a closer eye on the tactics used by candidates’ political campaigns as a way to better ensure we have control over our voting choices.
Bassi, A. (2013). Weather, mood, and voting: an experimental analysis of the effect of weather beyond turnout. Available at SSRN 2273189.
Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions. American Journal of Political Science, 49(2), 388-405.
Dingfelder, S. (2012, April). The science of political advertising. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/advertising
Gorvett, Z. (2015, May 6). The hidden psychology of voting. BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150506-the-dark-psychology-of-voting.
Halpern, S. (2018, October 18). Mind games. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://newrepublic.com/article/151548/political-campaigns-big-data-manipulate-elections-weaken-democracy
Miller, J. M., & Krosnick, J. A. (1998). The impact of candidate name order on election outcomes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 291-330.
Soroka, S., Fournier, P., & Nir, L. (2019). Cross-national evidence of a negativity bias in psychophysiological reactions to news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(38), 18888-18892.
Van Assche, J., Van Hiel, A., Stadeus, J., Bushman, B. J., De Cremer, D., & Roets, A. (2017). When the Heat Is On: The Effect of Temperature on Voter Behavior in Presidential Elections. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 929. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00929