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Don't "Forget" to Vote

Surprising reasons people "accidentally" neglect to vote & how to overcome them.

Despite everything at stake, the psychology of behavior tells us that some of you will unintentionally not vote. Here are some reasons why, and how to overcome them.

Our actions don’t always match our aspirations. What we actually do is sometimes out of alignment with our highest intentions (understatement alert). If you have ever tried to stick with a new diet and exercise plan, you know this. If you are a parent or married, you know this. If you are human, you know this.

The vast majority of our beliefs, decisions, and actions (including decisions not to take action) are heavily influenced by non-conscious processes. In other words, very often we know not what we do, and know not why we do it.

Why? Because our brains and our bodies are built for efficiency. In the realm of decision making, this means that we’ve automated as many decisions as possible, especially when they are repeated (like annual voting). We let things run on autopilot, and we don’t always tell ourselves the truth about why we do or do not take actions.

Even when we believe that we are making conscious, rational decisions, we often create the story about why we did something after we do it, not before. It turns out that when I get a drink of water, my body and brain are already halfway through drinking the water before my conscious mind says, “Oh, yeah, I was thirsty so I got up and went to the water cooler to get a glass of water.” My body did all of that for me, and then my brain told me a post-hoc story about why I did it.

Laboratory studies show that this is especially true when we are in states of high emotion, when we are under perceived threat, and when we are dealing with overwhelming amounts of information, distraction, and pressure. Like these midterm elections.

For example, when we are receiving threat cues from our environment, it makes us less likely to consider new information, take new actions, or take risks. Because it is more risky to fight, these threat cues make it more likely that we will freeze or flee (e.g. stay home and not vote). Especially if you were thinking of voting for something or someone new.

What are threat cues? Things like “there is a giant crime-ridden caravan of migrants coming to take your jobs,” or “your taxes will be raised the day after the election.” These threat cues may even come from people you agree with. If you are like me, your email box has been full of dire threats about what will happen if the other side wins. The fight/freeze/flee parts of us can’t distinguish these dangers from any others, so the unfortunate likely outcome is that more people stay home from the polls.

Small Biz Chron
Source: Small Biz Chron

And, because this old part of us is deeply buried, we probably don’t even know why. We think – “I didn’t go because I was late picking up my kid from daycare and ran out of time,” or “there was too much traffic to go in the morning,” or “oh, look at that, my mail-in ballot ended up under the passenger seat of my car, dang!” But we really didn’t go because something inside of us was on red alert: navigating perceived threat. On an evolutionary level, it was safer and more efficient to stay hidden. How to overcome this? You've got to square your shoulders, take a deep breath, put those frontal lobes in the driver’s seat, and get thyself to the polls or the mailbox.

Another design feature of being human is that we tend to follow the masses. If we think the majority of people are going in one direction, it’s really difficult to talk our evolutionary old-brain self to go in a different direction. I mean, really hard. Even if you have every intention of voting, your whole brain-body system might just help you “lose track of time” or you may find you “just couldn’t make it there.” Especially if you are voting for someone new, something different than most of your friends and family, or someone different than who your brain has been convinced is in the majority of your state or country (in other words, who you see on TV the most, or hear about most on the radio - three guesses?). To head this built-in sheeplike tendency off at the pass, make sure that you make a special effort to get to the polls before you do anything else.

Finally, when we are overwhelmed with information, even if it is something we really care about, we can begin to feel paralyzed, apathetic, or have a sense of learned helplessness (where it doesn’t matter what we do, the waves of bad news just keep coming). Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely you’ve been hit with tsunami after tsunami of information, lies, facts, alternative facts, and break-the-glass and it-may-already-be-too-late warnings over the past few months. While much of this is intended to get us motivated, it can actually just lead to immobilization – or becoming a deer in the headlights. Which can lead to having a really tough time putting away the Ben and Jerry’s, getting our shoes back on, and out to the polls.*

Here’s the thing. The only antidote for all of these generally good but also limiting design features is inspiration, which with a few notable exceptions has been in short supply. Why are Beto, Abrams, Gillum, Jordan, and others getting closer to historic wins? Inspiration. Awe. Wonder. Big hairy audacious memes like equality, justice, independence, and liberty.

Inspiration launches our physiological "approach" system - the programming that moves us toward something, as opposed to the avoidance system). It was the big ideals that moved the people who founded this country to resist, even though they were outnumbered and had little chance of succeeding. The only thing that trumps (forgive the intentional reference) the flight/freeze/flee system is the move-toward, connect, create and collaborate system – which in the end is more powerful and longer-lasting. It’s why a mom whose kid is in danger can find superhuman strength.

John Held/Getty
Source: John Held/Getty

You can choose to activate that system by getting out there and voting. Those unconscious drives are strong, but your heroic intentions, when harnessed and especially when hitched to those of others, are stronger. On that note – friends don’t let friends not vote. Call your friends, family members, and neighbors and help them remember that they do matter, they can rise up, that they are not alone, and that together, we can make change.

*By the way, for those of you who felt too paralyzed and overwhelmed to do any research, you ARE allowed to vote ONLY for what you care about the most, and leave the others blank without invalidating your ballot. Skip all those justices and daylight savings time propositions if you have to!