In the 2012 elections, the American voter was faced with two very different potential Presidents, exemplifying different values and visions of America's future.. Mitt Romney's budget plan favored the military and large companies, who, he argued, could create more jobs and opportunities. The cost of doing this wiould likely be reduced funding for social programs, such as Medicare and education. President Obama, instead, focused on giving the middle class its fair share of the economic pie - universal healthcare and education to give a higher proportion of citizens a chance at upward mobility, and to prevent families from sinking into chronic poverty due to health, unemployment, or other crises. 

Challenges to Rationality in Voting

While at face value, the choice should be clear, based on one's values, such as compassion, fairness, opportunity, independence, and so on, in reality, most voters are far less rational.  Few people have the time to research the issues in depth. Sound bites on television and tweets on social networks may be intentionally or unintentionally misleading, and present, at best, an oversimplification of complicated issues. To make it worse, voters, especially those in “swing states,” were bombarded with a constant stream of talking heads pontificating and an unprecedented level of political ads, often funded by small groups of citizens with a clear, self-interested agenda.

While most people think voters make lists of pros and cons and then make, rational, deliberately thought-out choices, research has shown that they are more likely to rely on “gut rationality,” that is, their gut feelings about whether the candidate is likable, trustworthy, and similar to them in basic values.  Bill Clinton was a master at walking up to voters, listening intently, and conveying the sense that he could “feel their pain.” When Mitt Romney was caught on hidden camera “dissing” 47% of Americans as leeching off on government, his campaign received a big blow. The Republicans on the other hand, have tried to depict Obama as “other,”  that is, not really a citizen, a covert Moslem, or as a socialist who wants to redistribute wealth. The focus on Democrats taking “God” out of their platform likely made the party less attractive to devout Christians and regular churchgoers.

The Role of Emotion

Large research studies have also shown that voters are more likely to show up to vote for the opponent of a candidate they hate, than to support a candidate whose policies they agree with. Negative advertising can do significant damage! However, first impressions count as well. People who like a candidate early on are likely to stick with him or her. Therefore, candidates might do better to put in the big bucks at the beginning, rather than having a big surge at the end of the campaign. Fear can be a strong motivator as well, but more so for people who are conservative right-wingers. A study by researcher David Oxley showed that people who responded with fear and increased skin conductance to loud noises were more likely to support Conservative issues, such as gun ownership and restriction of immigration. One privately-sponsored ad, showing a Chinese lecturer and his students smirking over the demise of the U.S,. because of overspending and getting into debt to China, takes this fear message to an extreme (and ridiculous) degree.

Social Status and Ingroup Affiliation

Finally, it seems that a certain type of voter wants to be on the “winning team.”  Elevated social status, through affiliation with a winning group, appears to be a stronger motivator for these voters than the issues. This small but significant group of swing voters, exhibiting what researchers call “The Bandwagon Effect,” may actually have decided the outcome of this election. Perhaps this is why each party strived to publically depict their side as winning up until the final hour!

So, it seems voting is not a mindful process. Our brains, wired for physical survival, are vigilantly reactive to threat, social status, and ingroup - outgroup affiliatons. Humans are, at heart, and by history, social and territorial beings, and the candidate that most effectively targets these aspects of our natures is most likely to win the race.

About the Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and expert on mindfulness, emotions, neuroscience, and behavior, Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, career and weight loss coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears in radio shows, and as an expert source in national media outlets.

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