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Sarah Harrison, Ph.D., and Michael Bruter, Ph.D.

Do Elections Divide or Reconcile People?

A new way to understand what goes on inside the minds of voters.

We are excited to launch our new blog on Psychology Today, which we entitled "Inside the Mind of a Voter" like our eponymous latest book. We want to take you on a journey uncovering the "other side" of elections. It means that we want to understand elections from the point of view of voters, not parties or politicians, and it is amazing how much of everything we hear about elections, how we think they work, assumes the systems’ perspective rather than the voters’.

We'll address questions such as what people think about in the polling booth; how 10-15% finalise/change their minds on Election Day; what determines the atmosphere of an election; how people experience Election Night; how childhood elections and our first vote matter; when do people hate each other because of how they vote; and of course, how the coronavirus pandemic and major threats affect our experience of elections.

We are Director and Deputy-Director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory at the LSE. Our work covers 27 countries; our methods range from panel study surveys and election diaries to filming voters’ shadows in the polling booth, and virtual reality experiments.

To start, we wanted to offer you a small extract from our book, Inside the Mind of a Voter. It is from chapter 10: "Flipping the electoral world upside down: Homo Suffragator beyond the age of reason" (book copyright applies).

Switching the lights

In analyses of political behavior, we tend to think that the "be all and end all" of all questions is whom an individual will vote for, or, at the aggregate level, who will be victorious in an election. Everything else — an economic situation, social determinants, voters’ personality and socialization, context — are all likely causes and routes towards that ultimate result.

What if this was actually the wrong question, and if we were looking at the world from the wrong end of the lens? What if who wins elections did not really matter in terms of democracy, as long as people feel happy and that elections serve their purpose of making citizens comfortable regarding their role within their political system, and satisfied with their control of and interaction with society? What if, in the relationship between how you vote and how you experience elections, the important question was not how your experience of the election affects your electoral behavior, but rather whether your behavior affects your experience of electoral democracy, the ability of elections to bring you a sense of peace, and how they contribute to and shape your life?

Throughout this book, we have shown that how citizens appropriate electoral cycles, events, and narratives, and integrate them into their lives is largely different from what institutional logic would dictate those cycles, events, and narratives to follow. Democracy may be built on the myth of an osmosis between citizens and their institutions, but in this relationship, perspectives most definitely differ, hierarchies are rarely shared, and climaxes are more often diachronic than not. Consequently, to think of electoral decision as the ‘be all and end all’ of electoral democracy might work under a system-centric assumption, what one could describe as an institutionalist vision of behavior, but simply misses the point of a citizen-centric perspective, a bit like a shop assistant who would insist on understanding if the customer prefers the blue t-shirt or the red one whilst all the customer is thinking about is whether (s)he needs a t-shirt and can afford clothes after an expensive night out […]

Some consequential findings on the mystery of the voter’s mind:


1. A vote is not the raw expression of an individual’s personal preference. It is, instead, the outcome of a complex (conscious and subconscious) decision process by an individual who assumes a given role as a voter. This has radical implications on the validity of many of the models — and even methods – that we typically use to explain or predict the vote.


3. Electoral identity also means that voters can be coherent in ways that differ from our party-centric visions. […] Between 20 and 30% of voters also make up or change their minds within a week of a typical election, half of them on Election Day, but this is not fickleness but part of the logic of the electoral atmosphere which crystallizes as the election becomes more emotional.


5. Electoral behavior has its own nature of election cycles. Those cycles do not follow the logic of institutionalized cycles based on electoral terms, campaign dates, or electoral hierarchies no media prompts.


6. Citizens’ experience of elections largely intersects their personal and even intimate sphere. Citizens internalize elections and this is why they become part of their life. The most powerful memories of elections relate to personal relations and family, and our history as a voter largely mirrors the memory of our own history as an individual.

7. Elections are highly emotional. […] Approximately a third of respondents claim to have already shed tears because of an election. Nearly a third of British voters admitted to have tears in their eyes as a result of the 2016 Referendum on EU membership alone.


9. The permanent dialectic between individual and societal redefines the very nature of electoral rationality. Empathic displacement means that voters continuously consider the way the behavior of others in the election based on polls, heuristics, personal networks, and discussions including on social media. We claim that it explains many recent electoral “surprises” not in the forms of polls being mistaken but rather of polls leading to a changing behavior that contradicted their own predictions.


10. Elections bring out the best in people. A majority of voters feel the weight of an electoral responsibility on their shoulders and try to think and act accordingly.

11. Voters’ psychology is in permanent interface with electoral organization to create electoral ergonomics.


12. For citizens, elections have an atmosphere […]. This atmosphere changes over time and its perception is affected by voters’ own experience (are they voters or not, in person or remotely), outlook, electoral identity, and behavior […] That atmosphere is cumulative over time and determines the capacity of elections to bring closure and resolution, hope or hopelessness, a sense of closeness to or on the contrary alienation from others and even hostility.


Ultimate hopes, ultimate risks? The psychology of electoral peace


The book will close on this question mark. We have seen that the majority of citizens show "goodwill" to embrace and inhabit roles as voters and consider their relationship to others in elections. In this sense, elections bring the “best” out of people. The vast majority of voters try to do what they believe to be right and do so in ways that are empathic, projective, and societally-minded. Yet, in an age of electoral hostility, animosity towards opposite voters seems to have less to do with personal disagreement, and often more with a sense of moral and projective outrage, as though those opposite voters were precisely not simply favorable to a different future, but espousing conceptions of society and a collective identity which are intrinsically contrary to the interest and values of the polity, a betrayal of its identity, sometimes a selfish frustration of the hopes of its young. Just like electoral identity means that people do not merely express a selfish preference in the booth based on the role they inhabit, it is that role that they embrace when they also judge and sometimes hate others who reach different conclusions from theirs, and it is on behalf of society and its future that they often abhor them.

The Homo Suffragator must decide whether (s)he still believes in electoral democracy as an effective way of regulating disagreement and improving the collective future; a worthwhile path to keep hoping that one day, their young will live better and happier than them. The alternative — that the Homo Suffragator has already given up — would be nothing short of terrifying.

Extract from chapter 10 ("Switching the Lights"), M.Bruter and S.Harrison: Inside the Mind of a Voter (2020). $29.95 from the Princeton University Press website.


Bruter, M. and Harrison, S. (2020). Inside the Mind of a Voter: A New Approach to Electoral Psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press


About the Author

Sarah Harrison, Ph.D., is Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the LSE and Deputy-Director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory.

Michael Bruter, Ph.D., is Professor of political science at the LSE and Director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory.