The psychology of voting

With SU elections coming to a close, what psychological factors influenced your vote?

Aristotle said that “man is by nature a political animal”. But how much of our nature is political and how much of us is animal? In what scenarios does one win out over the other?

Before we tackle the ways in which our biology can affect how we vote, we must first address the extent to which it affects our arrival on polling day. Less than three-quarters of the country registers to vote, and of this registered electorate, around 40 to 50% usually turn up at the polls. Voter turnout can span from a low 30%, as in the 2012 Children’s Rights referendum, up to over 70%, such as in the 1972 referendum on Ireland joining what is now the EU. Even though there was a good turnout to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018, why is it that, even in the best case scenario of our democracy, almost half of the population’s voices are not heard through the ballot box?

“Voter alienation is a sense that citizens feel that the political system does not work for them, and any attempts to engage with politics will be ultimately fruitless.”

One of the central causes of voter apathy is alienation. Voter alienation is a phenomenon where citizens feel that the political system does not work for them, and any attempts to engage with politics will be ultimately fruitless. Due to our loss aversion, which will be touched upon later, many would rather sit on the sidelines than invest time learning about or campaigning for a cause only for it to lose. However, this is not to put all the onus on the individual. Factors such socio-economic background, age, and education all contribute massively to voter turnout. This can be seen in the fact that the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown region of Dublin, known for its affluence, has the highest voter turnout in the country.

“This implies that your likelihood of voting may be as innate as your sexual orientation or personality.”

Since 2007, there have been several papers published investigating the influence of genetics on political mobility. This field of genopolitics used comparisons between identical and non-identical twins to find that voter turnout is roughly 53-72% heritable. For context, the heritability of sexual orientation is between 30-50%, and the heritability of the big five personality traits span between 41-61%. This implies that your likelihood of voting may be as innate as your sexual orientation or personality. However, this is only conjecture, and the ranges may eventually narrow to the low end, with increases in social mobility and educational attainment.

Interestingly, the heritability of party identification and vote choice ranges from 33-66%. If variance in political ideology contributed to the level of heritability, would more extreme political views be more heritable and more moderate views be less so, vice versa, or would there be no effect? This is identity politics, and is less about genetics and more about parental socialisation. No one is born Marxist or fascist, these ideologies are learned, but some individuals may have a predisposition to strongly affiliate with political parties they are exposed to.

When surveyed about what they seek in a romantic partner, most people list kindness, intelligence, and attractiveness as the most valuable traits, but this is not reflected in their actual choice of spouse. The three most highly correlated traits in marriages are church attendance, position on the left-right political spectrum, and alcohol consumption. There is an almost 70% chance that you will choose to marry someone of the same political ideology, even though it is only reported as important by less the 20% of participants when asked. As such, people are unconsciously selecting partners based on their shared political ideology. There have even been studies showing that people prefer the smell of people of the opposite sex more when they share political leanings.

Don’t fear that all your political beliefs are predetermined, and that free will is an illusion. If that were truly the case, politicians would probably invest less time and money in lengthy campaigns designed to sway voters. Though people who have fewer centrist ideologies are less likely to be moved by these campaigns, it is the undecided voters that are the targets of the baby kissers, as well as fear and smear tactics. Recently, people have even been able to engage into the large untapped well of alienated voters, via populism.

There is a large cognitive load on people when it comes to making the decision on how to vote.  Campaigners often take advantage of this mental fatigue in a few ways, for example by flooding television, newspaper, and especially social media, with as much information as possible. It does not really matter whether it is true or not, the purpose of this misinformation is to increase mental fatigue; opening voters’ subconscious minds to manipulation via simple emotional narratives, rather than rational ones. This is taking advantage of what Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the availability heuristic. This shortcut in our minds derives the significance or size of a category by how quickly we can think of it. So, if things are complex and hard to recall, they will appear less significant. This means that the simpler the message you want to get across, and the more times someone hears it, the more true it will seem.

Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work in psychology and economics. Another idea very relevant to voter manipulation that he champions is that of loss aversion. This is when we pay disproportionate attention to negative outcomes over positive ones. Just think about the last time you were insulted compared to the last time you were complimented. The former is likely more salient than the latter.

Thanks to this vestigial quirk of our evolutionary psychology, politics has become an arena in which one does not need to prove that their ideas are good, but rather simply that their opponent’s ideas are worse or even dangerous. This was astutely noted by the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, when he said “instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares”.

Push polls are a perfect example of loss aversion in action. These polls are a political technique where canvassers call up voters and pose hypothetical questions that reflect poorly on their opposition. Even though they are just hypothetical, they can still be seen to decrease candidate approval by up to 50%.

“Populism is a means of discourse that appeals to the alienated masses by offering to clear the mists of political ambiguity and present the public with an us versus them narrative.”

At the most extreme end of these defamation-based political techniques lies populism. Populism is a means of discourse that appeals to the alienated masses. It does this by offering to clear the mists of political ambiguity and present the public with an us versus them narrative, a story in which all of society’s problems are due to a malicious elite plotting against them. The candidate then promises that, if elected, they will unravel that plot against the masses and set the world right again. This leads to an arms race of simplified narratives and a question of how populism’s grasp on our more tribal nature can be overcome.

Luckily, we live in a country where we are free to vote. Yet, unfortunately, we will never know whether the choices that we make are our own or a product of our biological and psychological predispositions. In the words of German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer: “A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills.” Either way, at least try and make it to the voting booth!