What’s driving voter decison-making

The Association for Psychological Science magazine Observer has an interesting article that tackles what cognitive science has told us about how voters choose their candidate.

It reiterates the common finding that emotional feelings toward a particular candidate or party has more sway that more factual information.

In 2005, Emory University political psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues published a study in which they correctly predicted people’s views on political issues based solely on their emotions. When the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in March 1998, the psychologists quizzed participants to gauge their knowledge of Clinton and the details of the scandal. Then they asked emotion-based questions about how participants felt about Clinton as a person, how they felt about the Democratic and Republican parties, and how they felt about infidelity in general. Months later, before the Congressional impeachment trial began in December, they called the participants back and asked them a series of questions along the lines of “Do you think what the president has been accused of doing meets the standard set forth in the Constitution for an impeachable offense?”

Using only what they knew about the respondents’ emotions, the researchers were able to correctly predict their views on impeachment 85 percent of the time. Knowledge meant little: When they factored in what the respondents actually knew about the situation and the Constitutional requirements for impeachment, they only improved the accuracy of their predictions by three percent.

Interestingly, the article suggests that economic issues – probably the most important concern in the current US election – are the ones that are least likely to be affected by emotion.

Emotion still plays a big part even in economic reasoning though, and I’ve always been curious to know more about how fact-based versus emotion-based reasoning interacts. For example, how much are emotions just a summary ‘opinion’ formed by individuals after considering the facts.

Unfortunately, unlike the one mentioned above, most studies in this area are of cross-sections and so don’t say much about how these two forms of reasons interact over time.

However, one source of reasoning not mention in this piece is superstition. Luckily, Psychology Today has a short piece that has picked out some sources of magical thinking from the current presidential race.

Link to article ‘This is Your Brain on Politics’ (via BPSRD).
Link to piece on ‘Election Superstitions’.

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