The unconscious vote: Unexpected factors may sway voters

After a 16-month interim period that often felt like anything but “transitional,” the election to presumably conclude this phase is finally upon us. The presidential candidates’ political programs, histories, demeanors and even their choice of clothing have been scrutinized and criticized in almost every cafe, taxi and living room throughout a very long, tiresome, collective debate.

It is tempting to conclude that after such a thorough political discourse, most citizens will elect their candidate based on a rational, well-thought-out stance.

Psychologists, it seems, disagree.

Despite the millions spent on campaign TV ads, billboards and tours, the factor that’s most likely to get people to go out and vote is actually hatred ­­— or, more specifically, having a candidate on the ballot who a lot of people simply can’t stand.

That, at least, was one of the conclusions reached by an ambitious study of voter attitudes led by Jon Krosnick, professor of psychology and political science at Stanford University.  Potential voters, it seems, are more motivated to vote in order to avoid something that is perceived as bad than for the opportunity to usher in something they perceive as good.

At least that appears to be the case in the US, where the study was conducted. How this might translate in a culture as different as Egypt’s is questionable, but it is interesting to note some common motives among the local electorate.

“Amr Moussa would have never been my first choice,” says Tamer Halaby between sips of beer at Zamalek’s Pub 28, referring to the former Arab League chief. Halaby was at Tahrir Square every day during the initial 18 days of the uprising. “But the alternative to him is having a Muslim Brotherhood president, which is far worse than any feloul [Mubarak regime member]. That’s why we have to vote — so the Brotherhood doesn’t win.”

Conversely, Farid Sabry, who classifies himself as liberal and an opponent of the Brotherhood, said he is voting for former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh.

“How can we have a revolution, then vote for someone who was part of the former regime? Abouel Fotouh is not my ideal candidate, but I’m voting for him because we can’t let the feloul come back to power.”

While a sample composed of these two individuals can by no means be generalized, it is interesting to see how an almost visceral emotion — whether against Islamists or former regime members — is motivating these two all-too-common stances. It’s their ill-will toward a certain camp, rather than their affinity for a certain candidate, that is fueling their eagerness to vote.

But the psychology behind voting can be more subtle than that. A landmark US study in 1998 found that the order of candidates’ names on a ballot can have a significant impact on election outcomes. Voters appear to be more biased toward candidates listed at the top of the ballot than at the bottom. The effect appears particularly strong when an incumbent isn’t involved, and in areas where voters are less knowledgeable about politics.

Again, how this may translate in Egypt is at best dubious. But it raises the question of how the symbols used by the candidates on the ballots to help illiterate voters identify them may also have a significant influence, particularly among voters who are unfamiliar with, or unsure about, the candidates.

For instance, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see how someone who is politically apathetic may be, as a horse lover, biased toward Abouel Fotouh, while leftist lawyer Khaled Ali could appeal to tree lovers based on their respective symbols. Ultimately, it is unclear what purpose these symbols serve as — in the ballots provided for Egyptians abroad, at least — each candidate has his picture beside his name.

Another study that further illustrates the unconscious biases potentially impacting voters’ choices unveiled the power of flags: The mere sight of one prior to an election appears to influence voting intentions. Led by Melissa Ferguson, associate professor of psychology at Cornell University, the study found that just seeing the US flag disposed American citizens to vote Republican.

Ferguson had volunteers fill in questionnaires about their voting intentions and political standing in the days leading up to the McCain-Obama election in 2008. This group was approached again soon after with further questions, except this time, half of them received questionnaires with a tiny American flag in the top left-hand corner of the page. They were approached a third time after the election and asked who they voted for.

The study found that those who had initially answered with a strong leaning toward Democrats in the first questionnaire, were significantly “cooler” or less enthusiastic toward the party in the second questionnaire — but only if they were answering the questionnaire with the US flag.

Moreover, while 83.5 percent of the participants who were not shown the flag later said they had voted for Obama, only 72.8 percent of those who had been presented with it voted for him. According to the statistical analyses of this study, which was published in Psychological Science, the difference is significant.

Ultimately, while such studies suggest that voting intentions may be far from fully conscious, let alone rational, perhaps the most profoundly revealing study was led by Douglas Oxley in 2008. Published in Psychological Science, the researchers found that political attitudes may well have a biological basis rather than a thought-out intellectual one.

In this study, the research team observed individuals’ physiological reactions to sudden noises and threatening images by measuring their skin conductivity. Higher conductivity indicated more sensitivity to the noises and images.

The study found that individuals with a heightened physiologically sensitivity were more likely to support conservative issues like the war in Iraq, immigration restrictions and reduced gun control.

Conversely, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivity to sudden noises and threatening images were more likely to support foreign aid, pacifism and liberal immigration policies. The paper seems to suggest that if you are more physiologically sensitive to shocking or uncomfortable situations, you are more disposed to a conservative ideology.

Again, how this might translate among Egyptians is open to debate. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to find out if Egyptians that prioritize having “a strong president” — one that can “bring back stability” — are more physiologically sensitive to the sudden sound of, say, gunfire in the distance.

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