An Apple a Day Keeps the Tyrant Away

This simple question predicts a person's health and voting pretty well.

Posted Jun 21, 2015

Courtney Carmody, flickr.com/calamity_photography
Source: Courtney Carmody, flickr.com/calamity_photography

Voting is essential to democracy. So researchers have spent a lot of time looking at the factors that motivate people to exercise their right to vote. Many focus on education and wealth, both of which make it easier to overcome the obstacles to voting, while others look at issues like social connectedness, which makes it worthwhile to vote.

But few people have looked at biological factors. And it won’t shock you to know that I think voter turnout researchers, of which I’m one, have missed an important element in voting. In this case, the biological factor I’m thinking about is as basic an issue as a person’s health.

“HOW IS YOUR HEALTH IN GENERAL?”

Medical researchers have found this simple question is fairly predictive of people’s actual health, including heart disease and cancer, as well as their use of medical services. And health is related to socioeconomic status (education, wealth, and occupational status), family structure, and neighborhood type. Education, wealth, social connectedness…sound familiar?    

Since similar factors are related to both voting and health, it makes sense that two teams of researchers have started looking at health and its consequences for political behavior. U.S. researchers Julianna Pacheco and Jason Fletcher analyzed a large social survey and a large health survey of Americans and found people saying they were in “excellent” health were 9-12 percentage points more likely to vote than people indicating “poor” health. Not only that, they found respondents who were adolescents when asked about their health were 7 percentage points more likely to vote four years later when they were eligible to vote and when they reported excellent rather than poor health, which suggests poor health may have long-term consequences for political behavior.

Public domain by US Government/CDC/JudySchmidt.
Source: Public domain by US Government/CDC/JudySchmidt.

Finnish researchers Mikko Mattila, Peter Söderlund, Hanna Wass, and Lauri Rapeli conducted similar analyses using data from 30 countries (France, Germany, and UK as well as a number of others such as Croatia, Turkey, and Ukraine) in a large European survey. They found people reporting they were in “very good” health were 10 percentage points more likely to vote than those reporting “very bad” health. And it turns out the effect was particularly strong as people got older; that is, bad health affected elders more than their younger compatriots.

TOO MUCH PARTYING…OR NOT ENOUGH?

Professors Pacheco and Fletcher found another interesting effect among American citizens. People reporting better health were more likely to identify with the Republican Party. The effects are small in the social survey (2-4 percentage points) but much stronger in the health survey (9 percentage points). I think this makes sense given that people with health problems are more likely to need a social safety net, which has been a lower priority for Republicans than Democrats.

Claus Rebler, flickr.com/zunami
Source: Claus Rebler, flickr.com/zunami

HERE’S TO OUR HEALTH

Is it shocking to find out that health affects political behavior, particularly a political behavior like voting that requires both physical and mental effort? I’m a big baby when I’m sick, so it’s not shocking to me. But it is important to recognize this happens. As both teams of researchers suggest, if voters are healthier than nonvoters, then it’s the policies of the healthy that are most likely to be enacted and the policies of the sick that are most likely to be ignored. But almost all of us will be sick someday.

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For more information:

Mattila, Söderlund, Wass, & Rapeli. 2013. “Healthy Voting: The Effect of Self-reported Health on Turnout in 30 Countries.” Electoral Studies 32(4): 886-891. 

Pacheco & Fletcher. 2015. “Incorporating Health into Studies of Political Behavior Evidence for Turnout and Partisanship.” Political Research Quarterly 68(1): 104-116.

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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