The Frontal Cortex

Emotional Voters

Last week, David Brooks had a smart column on the essential “irrationality” of voters. (I’m defining irrationality here as any mental process that’s not rational/deliberate/System 2. I have no idea if our democracy would be better off if voters imitated the rational agents in economics textbooks. I only know that the mind doesn’t work that way.)

In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness. “People often act without knowing why they do what they do,” Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, noted in an e-mail message to me this week. “The fashion of political writing this year is to suggest that people choose their candidate by their stand on the issues, but this strikes me as highly implausible.”

Brooks goes on to cite all the usual suspects: kahnemanandtversky, Damasio, LeDoux. Aristotle might have called us the political animal, but we’re really an emotional animal, guided, for the most part, by our adaptive limbic system. At any given moment, our political beliefs emerge from the quarrel inside our head, as different brain areas are triggered by different cues. Instead of basing our votes on a careful analysis of the issues, we make political choices via emotion and intuition, which leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of biases, frames and fleeting associations.

One of the best example of this phenomenon comes from studies of voter preferences in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. The psychologists Mark Landau and Sheldon Solomon took a large group of undergraduates from all across the political spectrum and had them stare at some blinking computer screens. While the blinks seemed meaningless – they lasted for just a few milliseconds, which is too fast for conscious awareness – they actually conveyed some emotionally charged information. Half of the subjects were subconsciously “primed” with stimuli that evoked the terrorist attacks, like the letters WTC or the numbers 9/11. The rest of the subjects just looked at area codes and random groupings of letters.

After the priming session, the scientists asked the subjects a series of political questions. For instance, after reading a series of sentences that strongly supported President Bush and his policies – “I appreciate our President’s wisdom regarding the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power,” etc. – they were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, whether or not they agreed with the paragraph.

The results were dramatic. When people were primed with neutral stimuli, they gave the sentences an average rating of 2.1, which meant they were in mild disagreement. In general, they thought Bush’s post-9/11 policies were a mistake. However, when the subjects were subconsciously exposed to words and numbers that reminded them of terrorism, their political opinions were reversed. They now gave the sentences a rating of 3.75, signaling a rather strong endorsement of the Bush administration.

Landau and Solomon then looked at how the threat of terrorism affected the 2004 Presidential election. One group of subjects was asked to think about the possibility of their own death, a process Landau and Solomon refer to as “mortality salience”. (Landau and Solomon had previously shown that reminders of 9/11 made people much more likely to think about death and dying.) The other group was primed with thoughts of pain, so that they ended up contemplating their most painful personal experiences. The subjects then completed a short survey about either President Bush or John Kerry, in which they were asked to rate both candidates on a nine-point scale.

When people were asked to think about pain, they preferred Kerry by a wide margin. His average rating was 5.5 points, compared to Bush’s 2.2. However, when the scientists triggered thoughts of death – the mortality salience condition – Bush suddenly became much more popular. In fact, he was now given significantly higher ratings than Kerry, even though a plurality of the participants described themselves as liberal.

While the scientists associate such a conservative tilt with “terror induced irrationality,” it’s not clear that these people are any more irrational than those who chose Kerry after being primed with “pain”. In both instances, different emotional cues trigger a slightly different set of emotional brain areas, which end up shaping our preferences.

My favorite study of voter irrationality is this one, which looked at voting patterns from the 2000 election in Arizona. After analyzing the data, and controlling for every conceivable variable, the researchers concluded that our decisions in the ballot box are significantly altered by our surroundings. For example, voters were nearly three percent more likely to support an increase in the state sales tax if they voted in a school. They were also significantly more likely to oppose a stem cell initiative if they had recently seen a church. According to the researchers, such “contextual biases” are potent enough to affect even a moderately close election.


  1. #1 Alvaro
    January 21, 2008

    Brooks’ and this article are both very interesting and right in showing how economics textbooks don’t describe our decision-making, but they seem to fall in the same “absolute” trap as those textbooks. They seem to rest on the assumption that everyone is the same (including a 30-year old hedge-fund manager and a retired 80-year old), and are so all the time (neither of them change their decision-making process over time).

    I doubt both.

  2. #2 Scott
    January 21, 2008

    When people were asked to think about pain, they preferred Kerry by a wide margin. His average rating was 5.5 points, compared to Bush’s 2.2. However, when the scientists triggered thoughts of death – the mortality salience condition – Bush suddenly became much more popular. In fact, he was now given significantly higher ratings than Kerry, even though a plurality of the participants described themselves as liberal.

    I’m curious to know, though, if this changed anyone’s vote. Viewing one candidate more favorably is different than casting a vote for him. There may be some quiet part of my brain that, when stimulated a certain way, makes it known that I actually love lima beans. But when I go to a restaurant, I never order lima beans.

  3. #3 shelby
    January 22, 2008

    People aren’t made up of parts. There isn’t an emotional part and a rational part, really. People are just people. Sometimes we like to think we are rational, and we can make seemingly rational decisions, but we are always, always affected by how we feel. Emotions help to form rationality, and rationality helps to form emotions.

    Putting this in the context of voting is interesting.

  4. #4 interstitial
    January 22, 2008

    [Slightly removed from the present conversation, but a related question I’ve been thinking about:]

    It seems pretty clear that the issues are just one part of how we vote, and maybe not as significant a part as some other factors. We generally seem much more interested in assessments of the candidates’ character, personality, public appearance, etc – and in the “horse race” aspects of the campaign (who’s up, who’s down, who’s spending how much money, etc).

    Now, we can complain that this is just because the media tends to covers these stories, and not substantive political debate, but is the fact that the media focuses on these issues so closely really indicative of a bias of ALL people? That is to say, does the media eschew political substance for the horse race because the latter is the only thing that really affects the way we vote? Or is it some bias specific to the media themselves (short deadlines, a bias towards stringing together a narrative out of a campaign)?

    [Forgive me – I’m a poli sci grad student.]

  5. #5 Jean-Baptiste Cossart
    January 22, 2008


    I really enjoyed this article and featured it the Science and Health Section of The Issue today!


  6. #6 bigTom
    January 22, 2008

    I think it is a very important thing for people to be aware of. The studies you refered to showed the influence of largely subliminal stimulas, I wonder how much the results change when the presense of the stimulus is consciously unmistakable? Are people able to resist being manipulated when they can see that an attempt has being made to do so?

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