How Should a Person Vote?

in Uncategorized
November 5th, 2012

Election Day is almost here! Many people will have their minds already made up when they walk into their local voting station on Tuesday, confident in their choice for President. This is exciting, even if simply that Election Season will finally be over and we can all move on with our lives, as this disgruntled 4-year old girl so desperately wants.

History in the making, for realsies

And yet, there will still be some undecided voters who will make their choice on the way to the voting booth. I’m willing to bet that some of these people, especially those who will cast those critical swing-state votes, will enter their preferred candidate’s name with seemingly no sense of the democratic responsibility and power their vote yields, as evidenced by this political cartoon.

Undecided voters, rejoice! I am here to help you explore the depths of all the questions weighing down your weary mind:

Well maybe not all your questions...

But the most befuddling question in every conversation before, during, and after the Election is this: how and why do people vote?

To answer this question, we might need some ideas from an unexpected source. Let’s investigate some recent research in neuroscience to figure out how people vote.

The act of decision-making is central to the voting process. Whether you make a snap, “gut-reaction” judgment between the Republican and Democratic candidates or take the time to consider their policies rationally, many of the same brain regions are active in decision-making. One of these regions is the amygdala, principal in the functions of memory and emotion. Whether we realize it or not, part of our relation to the candidates in this year’s election is dependent on emotion; while most of us have not met either candidate, we have developed a bias for the political party they represent. According to research published in Political Psychology, we may grow to identify with a certain party based on our parents’ moral leanings, social environment, and socioeconomic class, all the same way we develop our own personal identities. In painful contrast to what we once believed as teenagers, we still inherit much of our parents’ moral and political beliefs.

Moreover, negative emotion seems to play a larger part in our decision-making and motivation than does “positive” emotion. In a 1991 study (Quarterly Journal of Economics), people were more motivated by avoiding pain than by seeking pleasure. Do we unconsciously pretend to like the more popular candidate to avoid potential embarrassment in our social circle?

Thus, are the reasons we vote for one political party versus another based solely on our upbringing and emotional responses?

This view does little to provide optimism for the freethinking, voting populace we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, according to a 2012 Science study, our decisions are quite frequently based on automatic associations instead of the conscious consideration we believe them to be. In a paradigm implicating undecided decision-makers (read: undecided voters), subjects were given photos of two women and asked which they preferred and to state the reasons why. Sounds simple enough, but the twist was that the pictures were sometimes switched, and the subjects were actually given the picture of the woman they did not like initially. Subjects still provided an answer for the photograph, even if it wasn’t the one they chose! Once made to give a choice between the two women (read: candidates), the initially undecided voters found a way to unconsciously derive a reason for their choice.

The typical undecided voter

So, we may have an answer to the almost-Sartrean question poised in the title: how should a person vote? The answer is completely up to you. In a matter of hours, you will (hopefully) cast your vote for the next President of the United States. Maybe you chose your candidate according to what your friends or parents told you about their beliefs. Maybe you made your decision based on fear of losing, even if it is by proxy of your political party.

My advice is this: as we have seen in the studies cited in this article, your unconscious, emotional side plays a large factor in your decision-making ability. If you are still undecided, please sit down and think about what is at stake in this election. Take the time to think for yourself, and you will know how a person should vote.


Automatic Mental Associations Predict Future Choices of Undecided Decision-Makers – Science

Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model – The Quarterly Journal of Economics

Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters’ Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election -PLoS ONE

Rational Constraint in Mass Belief Systems: The Role of Developmental Moral Stages in the Structure of Political Beliefs – International Society of Political Psychology

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