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The Brain in the Voting Booth

How hidden biases influence our vote

October 27, 2010

In anticipation of Election Day, many of us have reviewed the candidates and their policies, done background research on local issues, and developed a rational plan for which boxes to check on the ballot. At least, that’s what we said we were doing. But the reality is that most voters are only human when they fulfill their civic duty, and thus exhibit all sorts of cognitive biases on (and leading up to) elections.

So, what subconscious inclinations make us vote the way we do? Here are some theories about the most common biases — coming soon to a voting booth near you!

1) Stick-it-to-the-Man Bias. People mistakenly believe that punishing “the man” (big corporations, oil companies, the extremely rich) will have little or no consequence for the rest of us — in other words, we can make the rich pay and not pay ourselves. An article published this June in the journal Economic Affairs said, in fact, many policies that seem to burden only the rich just pass on costs to consumers. For example, policies that require companies to produce more energy efficient cars (gotcha, man!) are more popular than a gasoline tax, but they inevitably mean higher automobile prices.

2) Action Bias. We want to fix things when they go wrong, so in troubled times we vote for a change, regardless of whether the change will bring any good. The intuition to avoid the status quo means we switch lanes in traffic jams to no avail, or support new company leadership when business is bad. Or, we vote against incumbents, even if we don’t trust the opposition. Given that only 23 percent of registered voters approve of the job Congress is doing, it seems likely that many will be tempted to vote for some — or rather, any — action.

3) First-Listing Bias. This one is depressingly whimsical. If your name is on top, you’ll get more votes. Voters exhibit a bias towards voting for the candidate listed first on the ballot, especially when they don’t have much information (and need to make a decision based on something). With only a few seconds to decide, people who can’t immediately think of a reason not to vote for a candidate will go for the first name they see.

4) Pessimism Bias. We overestimate the severity of economic conditions, and ignore real economic data. A recent Gallup poll found confidence in the economy was at a record low for 2010, but according to a recent paper by economist William Goffe of SUNY Oswego, we may be over-gloomy. Goffe found that we systematically show too much pessimism about things like inflation, the unemployment rate, and long-run growth. A poor economy makes reelection harder for incumbents (especially in the governing party) and since this is the top issue this election, challengers who exploit that pessimism may have an advantage.

All sorts of other factors may irrationally sway our voting decisions, from polling location to ballot graphics to rotten smells. Knowing about these biases won’t eliminate them entirely, but it may help. So when you enter the voting booth, at least you’ll be prepared.

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About the Author

Lena Groeger studied biology and philosophy at Brown University and is especially interested in the intersection of these two fields. After working as a graphic designer for Brown Health Education, she decided to think outside the poster and explore new means of communication, which led her to SHERP. She’s excited to write about the multidisciplinary questions of science and ethics for the general public. Visit her web site at www.lenagroeger.com.

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