Caveman Politics

How evolution impacts politics.

Voting and Stress: Do Hormones Make You a Better Citizen?

The hormone cortisol prepares you for challenges, including in the voting booth.

Voting can be stressful. I learned this the hard way several years ago. I had the “opportunity” to choose between the morally blighted incumbent, who defended a colleague who sent lewd messages to and solicited sex from teenaged congressional pages, and the intellectually blighted challenger, who made outlandish statements and switched parties at the drop of a hat.

I was going to be ashamed of my vote regardless of who it was for. And I distinctly remember putting off voting several times on Election Day and then, after deciding I couldn’t stomach pondering the disgust-inducing decision any longer, walking into the voting booth perspiring (on a cold November day) with a racing heartbeat.

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I was actually surprised at my response. I think and talk about voting almost on a daily basis. At worst it should have been an unpleasant task, like mowing the grass. But sweaty palms? No way! I’m a professional political scientist.

HORMONES AND VOTING COLLIDE

But I shouldn’t have been surprised, because as some colleagues put it, I was experiencing the collision of democracy and endocrinology.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/spaceodissey/2580085025/
When faced with a stressful situation, our adrenal glands secrete the hormone cortisol to help prime our bodies to respond to the threat. It accomplishes this by doing things like maintaining blood pressure and making sure glucose (energy) is not diverted away from the central nervous system, which includes our most important weapon, our brain.

Cortisol levels have been found to increase in fighting situations as well as other threatening circumstances like investors making trading decisions and students taking tests. Further, cortisol levels have also been found to increase in anticipation of stressful events—like having to choose between “blighted” candidates.


http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cortisol_for_injection.jpg
WAS CORTISOL THE CULPRIT?

Research suggests it’s certainly possible. In one set of studies, Israel Waismel-Manor, Gal Ifergane, and Hagit Cohen found that voters on Election Day “exhibited extremely high levels of cortisol,” reaching almost twice the level they experience on a normal day. And in an interesting twist on this, Chris Larimer, Kevin Smith, and John Hibbing found that individuals with higher baseline levels of cortisol were more susceptible to social pressure to vote, which they suggest happens because those people want to alleviate the unpleasant pressure to vote.  

The fact that voting is demonstrably stressful is important to understand. It suggests that we may be able to increase voter turnout if we could somehow make voting less stressful. Voting may be stressful for some people because of the conflict involved, but it may also be stressful because going to the polls forces people to participate in formal yet unfamiliar processes with unfamiliar people. While there’s not much that can be done about the conflict in elections--they are, after all, competitions--we may be able to reduce the social stressors of voting procedures by, for instance, making casting a vote more familiar and less public.

OH, BY THE WAY

Another thing Israel and his colleagues found: people voting for parties that were expected to lose also had higher levels of cortisol. That must have been my real problem that election…voting for losers.

IS VOTING STRESSFUL FOR YOU? LEAVE A COMMENT TO LET US KNOW.

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For more information:

Christopher W. Larimer, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Hibbing. 2014. “Increasing Voter Turnout among Stress-Sensitive Individuals.” Paper presented at the 2014 Midwest Political Science Association Conference.

Israel Waismel-Manor, Gal Ifergane, and Hagit Cohen. 2011. “When Endocrinology and Democracy Collide: Emotions, Cortisol and Voting at National Elections.” European Neuropsychopharmacology 21(11): 789-795. 

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at GreggRMurray.com. 

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Gregg R. Murray, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University.

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