The Frontal Cortex

Rational Voters?

Whenever I happen to watch some talking heads on a cable news channel – usually while stuck in an airport – I’m always impressed by how mistaken the basic premise of the conversation is. The pundits will waste lots of words on how Obama’s pivot on FISA might turn off his liberal base, or how McCain’s tax cuts will appeal to working women, or they’ll consider the political implications of whatever issue happens to be in the news that day. The underlying assumption, of course, is that issues matter, that voters are fundamentally rational agents who vote for candidates based on a coherent set of principles. In other words, they assume that my political preferences reflect some mixture of ideology and selfish calculation. I’ll vote for the guy who best matches my geopolitics and tax bracket.

The problem, as political scientist Larry Bartels notes, is that people aren’t rational: we’re rationalizers. Our brain prefers a certain candidate or party for a really complicated set of subterranean reasons and then, after the preference has been unconsciously established, we invent rational sounding reasons to justify our preferences. (Some voters, of course, probably do chose their candidate for “rational” reasons, but I have yet to meet very many of them.) This is why the average voter is such a partisan hack and rarely bothers to revise their political preferences. For instance, an analysis of five hundred voters with “strong party allegiances” during the 1976 campaign found that, during the heated last two months of the contest, only sixteen people were persuaded to vote for the other party. Another study tracked voters from 1965 to 1982, tracing the flux of party affiliation over time. Although it was an extremely tumultuous era in American politics – there was the Vietnam War, stagflation, the fall of Richard Nixon, oil shortages, and Jimmy Carter – nearly 90 percent of people who identified themselves as Republicans in 1965 ended up voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

That said, when our preferences in the voting booth can be influenced they are often influenced by completely arbitrary factors. (In a 2004 paper, Bartels argued that “2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in 2000 because their states were too dry or too wet” as a consequence of that year’s weather patterns. In other words, these climatic acts of god cost Gore the election.) Or consider this new PNAS study summarized in the Globe Ideas section:

Several researchers examined voting across different polling locations from the 2000 election in Arizona, where a ballot initiative proposed to raise the sales tax to fund education. The initiative received a couple extra percentage points of support from people whose polling location was a school – a boost not seen with other initiatives unrelated to education. This effect did not go away even when adjusting for the possibility that different types of people might be voting in different types of locations. (Support for the initiative did not depend on how new the school was, suggesting that voters weren’t consciously assessing their surroundings.) The researchers also ran an experiment that randomly assigned people to view images of schools or office buildings and then vote on the same Arizona initiative. Not only did school images increase support for the initiative, but they significantly mitigated the relevance of one’s fiscal philosophy or parental status. None of the participants perceived the images’ influence, even after being told. Of course, schools aren’t the only kind of polling location: 40 percent of the votes in the 2000 Arizona election were cast in churches.

And then there’s the Peter Jennings effect. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Brian Mullen, a psychologist at Syracuse University, excerpted thirty-seven segments of campaign coverage from the nightly news programs of ABC, NBC and CBS. He then showed these short snippets to dozens of people and asked them to rate the facial expressions of each news anchor on a 21-point scale. Dan Rather of CBS was the most neutral anchor. When he talked about Ronald Reagan he scored 10.37, compared to 10.47 when he talked about Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate. (Higher numbers signify more positive facial expressions, such as a smile.) Tom Brokaw, the anchor at NBC, was similarly unbiased, scoring 11.50 when covering Reagan and 11.21 when covering Mondale. However, the expressions of Peter Jennings, the ABC newscaster, seemed to exhibit a consistent partisan slant. When covering Mondale, his facial expressions got an average rating of 13.38. But when Reagan was the subject, Jennings’ face lit up, so that he scored 17.44.

Mullen then conducted a phone survey of two hundred people across the country that regularly watched the network news. He found that, in every single television market, people who regularly watched Peter Jennings were more likely to vote for Reagan. According to Mullen, this statistically significant discrepancy was caused by the subtle bias of Peter Jennings: viewers of ABC were persuaded to vote for Reagan due to the “operation of his emotional cues”. In other words, the smile of news anchor swayed their vote.

Of course, most voters would deny being influenced by Peter Jennings’ facial expressions, just as they would deny being influenced by the location of their polling place. (For the record, Peter Jennings vigorously denied having a pro-Reagan bias.) We are utterly ignorant of the argument taking place inside our head, clinging instead to the illusion of our rationality.

Comments

  1. #1 sexshop
    July 19, 2008

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  2. #2 Joshy
    July 19, 2008

    One thing that illustrated how irrational voters really are to me was when, a few years ago, that congressman (name escapes me at the moment) changed parties in the middle of his term. He was elected a republican, but midway through his term, felt the republican label didn’t match his constituency’s desires, so he became an independent. And of course, his republican voter base was furious, even though he was clear he wasn’t changing any of his positions or ideologies…just changing what he was called.

  3. #3 Greg
    July 19, 2008

    Ummm…it was senator jeffords from Vermont and the reason Republicans were so ticked was because it changed the balance of power in the Senate. Not sure what you’re talking about.

    As for this post…sure a lot voters are irrational and uneduated, but this post takes it a bit too far. I’m pretty sure I still would not be able to vote for, say, Dubya even if Katie Couric winked, smiled and flashed me. Why? I find Bush’s stance on issues such as the environment, the economy, etc. To be wrong and ridiculous. Or is that just my brain tricking me because I really think Charlie Gibson is totally hotter and he nods every time he mentions a Democrat?

  4. #4 Joshy
    July 19, 2008

    Jeffords, yes, and you illustrate exactly what I mean: It didn’t “change the balance of power” at all, because Jeffords didn’t change any of his beliefs or the way he would vote. He would have voted the same way in congress whether you call him a republican, an independent, or whatever.

    But since a large part of what people use to chose a candidate has to do with those subterranean factors, one of which in my opinion is probably based on the arbitrary party label of a candidate, people assumed there would be a shift of power despite no actual shift of constituency values.

  5. #5 Greg
    July 19, 2008

    Joshy, of course there were major changes in the balance of power in the Senate! On a purely ideological level you are in correct in saying that there were no changes. But to say there were no changes in power whatsoever is simply false. When Jeffords switched, there were major changes in the Senate…such as the switch of the majority leader post from Republican to Democrat and the switching of committee chairmanships to the Dems. These are significant changes that drastically alter who has power in the Senate. This is why the Repubs were furious..all I’m saying is that you are over simplifying the situation.

    I agree that there is a sort of stereotyping when it comes to party labels. A Democrat in New York is not always the same, ideologically, as a Democrat from Alabama. But again, that is a matter of education. Unfortunately, many voters are uneducated not just on the issues, but also on basic civics.

  6. #6 RickD
    July 21, 2008

    Joshy:

    the Jeffords defection did not matter in terms of roll-call votes. It mattered in terms of who the Majority Leader was, who the various committee chairs were, and all sorts of other procedural details. Before the switch, the 2001 Congress pretty much ignored everything that Bush was doing. This included pointedly looking the other way while California was going through was appeared to be an obviously rigged energy crisis. After Jeffords switched, the Senate put up some token resistance, and the worst abuses abated for a while.

    At least, until 9/11 that is.

    Unrelated point:

    It is impossible to determine that Jennings caused people to vote for Reagan as opposed to whether Reagan voters preferred watching Jennings. For a more extreme example, consider exposure to Fox News. Does Fox News make Republican voters or do Republican voters make Fox News?

    I think all one could demonstrate from the study cited is that Peter Jennings was obviously leaned Republican.

  7. #7 Miles Gloriosus
    July 21, 2008

    The notion that much of our motivation is unconscious is true, but it’s hardly new or unique to neuroscience: it’s older than Freud.

    It’s quite possible, with self-awareness and careful thinking, to make more rational assessments of political candidates. Most people never attempt it, of course, but we aren’t mere puppets of our instincts, neurotransmitters, or social strata (depending on what you got your Ph.D. in :-) ).

  8. #8 Herd Animal
    July 21, 2008

    In my youth I spent many hours working with, milking, and observing the herding behavior of cattle on the farm; a wonderful learning experience which unfortunately is not shared by city folk.

    Homos sapiens evolved on this planet from earlier, more primitive herd (social) animals. Closely observing the herding behavior of mammals, flocking behavior in birds, schooling behavior in fish, swarming behavior in insects has led me to believe that this behavior reaches very far into the phylogenetic order. To me there is not a lot of difference between observing the struggle for dominance in a cattle herd or watching the superbowl on Super Sunday. Politics is, of course, a part of the same dynamic.

  9. #9 andy_w_harris
    July 21, 2008

    Daniel Kahneman and others proved that we rationalize far more than we are rational decision makers in the field of economics. I’m not sure that Mullen’s research conclusively proves that the facial expressions of biased network anchors caused certain voting behavior. I think it’s proven that Peter Jennings was biased. I think it’s proven that the unconscious will betray our best conscious intentions. That’s at the heart of the implicit association research at Harvard. So, I think Mullen’s conclusion is plausible. Yet, I believe decision making is more of a layered effect of several unconscious and conscious factors. To assume that the “facial expression bias” overruled all the other unconscious cues is what I find most curious about his work.

    Thanks for the timely post and as always, keepin’ it interesting.

  10. #10 MattXIV
    July 21, 2008

    I’m also in the camp that the “rationalizer” explaination is way overplayed. People may rationalize their intuitive views, but people will resolve cognitive dissonance when they encounter it – reason is used as a consistency check, not ignored entirely.

    A lot of the examples also don’t hold up very well.

    nearly 90 percent of people who identified themselves as Republicans in 1965 ended up voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

    I’d like to see the same numbers for Democrats – I’d wager a substantially lower. Goldwater didn’t do very well in ’64, while Reagan did quite well in ’80, so those who changed their mind between ’65 and ’80 would be more likely doing so in the pro-Republican direction. Second, party registration is a much stronger association than simply voting for a candidate; not all voters are registered with a major party (I think about 25% aren’t, obviously it changes from year to year) and those who don’t have strong ideological attachments to a particular party are less likely to register with one.

    2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in
    2000 because their states were too dry or too wet

    This is a sloppy interpretation of the relatively prosaic finding that voters tend to oppose the incumbent party when things are bad, in this case farmers who had bad weather. This isn’t as much irrational as a way of coping with incomplete information. Voting change when times are bad is actually a pretty good strategy, since the chance of a vote impacting an election is small and the time commitment of becoming an informed voter large. If you’re uncomfortable sitting in a given position, do you try to analyze what would be the best one to sit in, or just move until you find one you like?

    Several researchers examined voting across different polling locations from the 2000 election in Arizona, where a ballot initiative proposed to raise the sales tax to fund education. The initiative received a couple extra percentage points of support from people whose polling location was a school – a boost not seen with other initiatives unrelated to education.

    Priming effects do matter, but they’re relatively small overall. They determine which way undecides break but don’t change people’s world view, and the significance of priming would cut against the “rationalizer” model where people fit new stimuli into an existing disposition.

    According to Mullen, this statistically significant discrepancy was caused by the subtle bias of Peter Jennings: viewers of ABC were persuaded to vote for Reagan due to the “operation of his emotional cues”. In other words, the smile of news anchor swayed their vote.

    The paper doesn’t support this, since it doesn’t distinguish in its conclusions between the impact of the achor and the self-sorting of viewers to watch anchors who had similar impressions of the candidates as themselves. The sorting effect is much more likely in my opinion, since when a new news outlet with a given viewpoint opens up, its initial audience is always skewed towards that view point even before any influence could be possible.

    What the “rationalizer” model fails to account for is rational ignorance. If the probability of a vote affecting an election is small, and the time investment of making an informed vote is large, it’s rational to use cheap heuristics (voting for/against the incumbent based on overall conditions rather than specific policies, consistently voting for a single party that initially struck you as a good fit for your views, etc) or vote for reasons not strictly related to actual policy positions (your friend is bugging you to vote for candidate X, candidate Y’s voice annoys you so you don’t want to hear it on the news for the next 4 years, you like belonging to a political group and think of it as “your team”, etc). The people who are most likely to invest a great deal of effort in rationally analyzing political positions are those who find thinking about it enjoyable.

    It’s important to remember that thinking has a price in time and focus and if the improved result isn’t worth the investment, it’s best not to do it.

  11. #11 J.D.
    July 24, 2008

    “The paper doesn’t support this, since it doesn’t distinguish in its conclusions between the impact of the achor and the self-sorting of viewers to watch anchors who had similar impressions of the candidates as themselves.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, MattXIV. :)

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    February 24, 2010

    The people who are most likely to invest a great deal of effort in rationally analyzing political positions are those who find thinking about it enjoyable.

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    February 24, 2010

    The paper doesn’t support this, since it doesn’t distinguish in its conclusions between the impact of the achor and the self-sorting of viewers to watch anchors who had similar impressions of the candidates as themselves.”

  19. #19 erotik shop
    February 24, 2010

    According to Mullen, this statistically significant discrepancy was caused by the subtle bias of Peter Jennings: viewers of ABC were persuaded to vote for Reagan due to the “operation of his emotional cues”. In other words, the smile of news anchor swayed their vote.

  20. #20 seks shop
    February 24, 2010

    The sorting effect is much more likely in my opinion, since when a new news outlet with a given viewpoint opens up, its initial audience is always skewed towards that view point even before any influence could be possible.

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    According to Mullen, this statistically significant discrepancy was caused by the subtle bias of Peter Jennings: viewers of ABC

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    October 27, 2010

    According to Mullen, this statistically significant discrepancy was caused by the subtle bias of Peter Jennings: viewers of ABC were persuaded to vote for Reagan due to the “operation of his emotional cues”. In other words, the smile of news anchor swayed their vote.

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    May 15, 2011

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    October 5, 2011

    I agree that there is a sort of stereotyping when it comes to party labels. A Democrat in New York is not always the same, ideologically, as a Democrat from Alabama. But again, that is a matter of education. Unfortunately, many voters are uneducated not just on the issues, but also on basic civics

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