The Frontal Cortex

The Myth of the Undecided Voter

I’ve often suspected (based on a highly unsystematic series of conversations with classic New Hampshire independents) that most undecided voters are really just low-information voters, who have actually made a decision but don’t quite know how to explain their decision. If you prod, you’ll typically find that they’re “leaning” in one direction or another, or that they “like” one candidate a little bit more, but they can’t articulate the reasons behind their choice. As a result, the bias remains mostly subterranean: they don’t know what they really believe.

I don’t mean to sound condescending to people who aren’t partisan hacks (like myself). Part of me admires such open-minded independence, even if it often correlates with a less informed understanding of the issues. But it’s also important to note that introspective blindness is a basic feature of the human mind, and so we shouldn’t necessarily believe that undecided voters are really undecided.

In the study, researchers asked 132 residents of Vicenza, Italy, where they stood on a controversial ballot issue being debated at the end of last year: the expansion of a local United States military base. The voters also performed a computer test, in which they had to quickly categorize words flashing by on the screen as positive or negative; the words were sometimes paired with photos of the military base. By tracking the number of errors and the time it took to answer, the test estimated a person’s implicit positive or negative associations with the base.

The researchers then had the voters come in a week later and found that of the 33 who had declared themselves undecided, 9 now were in favor and 10 were opposed. And their scores on the computer test the previous week predicted which way they would turn, said one of the authors, Bertram Gawronski of the University of Western Ontario.

“Essentially the people with higher scores on the test tended to go pro, and those with lower scores tended to go contra,” Dr. Gawronski said in a telephone interview.


  1. #1 Eve
    August 21, 2008

    I have never liked the IAT. How can you test implicit associations if the point of the task is explicit? It’s pretty easy to figure out what association they are testing, and for me at least, that biases how I respond because I always have in mind what the experimenter is probably looking for.

  2. #2 Rachael
    August 22, 2008

    I’m not sure that I agree with your argument. For one, it’s impossible for a person to be entirely undecided. It’s like balancing on the vertex of a V: you gotta tip one way or another, eventually, especially in social contexts when people demand opinions from those around them. So it is not big surprise to me that undeciders are in fact leaners.

    I think if you really wanted to make the argument that undecided voters aren’t articulating their ideas even though they have a firmly rooted opinion, you’d have to try to sway their decision and see how that compares to the average partisan voter. The question I would ask is about the strength of belief, not just the direction of belief.

  3. #3 Luci
    August 22, 2008

    New Yorker readers (and Jonah’s recent inclusion in the writer’s gang should be sufficient incentive to become one if not already) have the benefit of the lucid and absorbing study of polling by Bruce McCall in the August 11 & 18 issue: Pollster Reports Nightmares. On the page before our esteemed Dr. Groopman’s article on germs. Bruce can write AND draw. But Jonah can write, reads up a storm, can cook, cultivates peppers, and who knows what else.

    Awesome at a mere 27, the future looks cosmic for this high-information wunderkind.

    Trying to be blind to the bias for a desired result in any poll or test is beyond my humble skills. If dimwits are asking, I overskew, don’t you?

  4. #4 Jeff
    August 25, 2008

    Mixed feelings can arise from having too-much information just as easily as from having too little and “lean”ing is not equivalent to being clearly decided. Especially in politics. None of this has much to do with one’s knowledge or ability to articulate the reasons why s/he is not firmly decided. Many other factors play a much greater role here, including the particular method of questioning and individual differences in verbal and affective style. A clearer framing of this IAT finding might be to skip all the leaps of logic and simply relate it to the larger set of research that suggest emotional processes often precede behavioral choices which often precede having articulatory access to (or making just-so stories about) the underlying motivation for one’s choices (e.g., in the Iowa gambling task).

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