3 unconscious biases that affect voter behaviour

September 2, 2016 - 4 minutes read

Why do people vote the way they do? Voters are influenced by a large number of factors, party identification, for one, is a major influencer in voting decisions. Ideology plays a big role too in deciding what party or candidate you favour. Studies have shown that social and demographic characteristics like class, geography, religion, gender, age play a part in deciding voting behaviour. These influences are easier to measure but from past elections, we’ve seen that voting behaviour doesn’t always go the way it was predicted.

psychological factors affecting voting behaviour

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias theorises that most of our conscious decisions are based on unconscious thought processes. What qualities do you look for in an election candidate? You may assume that people vote based on policies, values or if the candidate is honest, trustworthy and a decisive leader. On the other hand, research shows that a voter might place more importance to how a candidate looks rather than performance.

A 2009 study asked Swiss undergrads to choose between photos of competing candidates in the 2002 French parliamentary elections based on who appeared to be more competent. 70% of the students chose the candidate who went on to win the election. Since the students had no other variable other than looks to base their decision on, it shows to say that voters are highly influenced by a candidates exterior.

In a 2007 study by Gian Caprara, results showed that it’s not only looks that affect voter perception. The study asked 6,094 american voters to compare their personalities with those of John Kerry and George W Bush. John Kerry scored high in openness, a trait shared by Kerry voters while Bush was seen by most as loyal and sincere, attributes that his voters also shared. Unconscious bias played a subtle role in both studies influencing voter decisions. Here’s look at some of the hidden factors that can influence a voter.

Negativity Bias

An unconscious bias that campaigns tend to take advantage of is the Negativity bias. The tendency for people to let negative emotions dominate judgement and decision-making is called Negativity bias. Research suggests that emphasising the negative qualities of your opponent can increase voter turnout amongst your supporters.

Fear Sensitivity

A study into the impact of sensitivity to fear, found that conservatives are more influenced by fear inducing elements such as loud noises and threatening images. Political rhetoric, that plays on people’s fears such as terrorism, loss of jobs, violence etc. can be used to subtly influence voter behaviour.

Disgust Sensitivity

Yoel Inbar, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, did a study where he found relationships between disgust sensitivity and political conservatism. Responses by participants to questions similar to “you discover that a friend of yours changes underwear only once a week.” were recorded on a ‘disgust scale’ to measure disgust sensitivity. Further questioning of participants on their political ideology found that people who are easily disgusted are more likely to describe themselves as politically conservative. Invar relates the findings of the study to evolutionary biology in that as people started to spend more time in larger groups they started to develop defence mechanisms to avoid catching diseases.

The next time you decide to vote for a candidate, consider some of the unconscious biases that can come into play. Whether you will be able to separate the effect of these biases that are affecting your decisions from a candidates political ideology is harder to do.

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