Linda Lewis Griffith

Are you biased? How race, fear and other factors fuel the way we vote

Few of us want to admit that our votes are determined by emotions and prejudice.

But that’s exactly how we pick elected officials, says Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science and director of the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford University.

“In fact,” he explains, “all decision-making is unconscious.”

Take race and ethnicity. A study appearing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that racial prejudice played a significant role in the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain.

The authors concluded that “Mr. Obama was not elected because of an absence of prejudice, but despite its continuing presence.”

Voters’ decisions were often based on subtle prejudices or on biases that were explicitly rejected.

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Disgust seems to play a role, too.

Yoel Inbar of the University of Toronto asked subjects to respond to gross, icky statements (“If I see someone vomit, it makes me sick to my stomach”) then quizzed them on their political ideology. He found that the more squeamish his subjects, the more likely they were to be politically conservative.

The same holds true for fear. A study exposing people to threatening images and loud noises showed that folks who were most easily startled were apt to vote for right-wing candidates.

Perhaps that’s the reason politicians are so quick to associate their opponents with terrorism, heinous crimes and financial disaster.

The negativity bias is the well-studied tendency of people to remember negative facts better than positive ones, and to base their decisions on those unpleasant memories. Hence, candidates talk more about their opponents’ flaws than about their own successes and achievements.

Negativity is also a compelling reason to vote. Voters care less about selecting someone they like than about rejecting a person they despise.

It’s not surprising that candidates’ appearances sway our opinions. According to psychology professor Tamara Avant at South University in Savannah, Georgia, “People often assume that people who are physically attractive also possess other desirable characteristics, such as being intelligent and friendly.”

British research suggests that perceived competence is the most important consideration for voters. But if both candidates are equally qualified or if their qualifications are unknown, then attractiveness plays a significant role.

According to Dr. Caitlin Milazzo, a lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter and one of the authors of the study, attractiveness “could get you a few extra votes especially if you want to get undecided voters.”

We also want politicians with whom we can identify, perhaps hailing from a similar economic status or suffering the same deprivations as a child. Candidates go to such lengths to discuss their humble beginnings, even if they have since become successful or wealthy.

Sometimes our preferences are impacted by events out of our control.

A 2004 analysis of random events and voter behavior states that “voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods and shark attacks.” They add that an electorate in pain “will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties.”

The real take away from this information? Personal biases are inevitable. But it’s up to each of us as voters to make the best decisions that we can.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a retired marriage, family and child therapist who lives in San Luis Obispo. Reach her at
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