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Voter Behavior: 4 Surprising Findings

Think you're an informed and engaged voter? Think again.

It seems that candidates will do anything to get your vote. Think of all the time and money they spend trying to convince you that they are the best person for the job. Much has been made about voter turnout this election cycle, and rightly so. In the 2016 presidential election, roughly one hundred million eligible voters didn't vote. Voter suppression and discontent are oft-cited reasons for these dismal numbers. But studies show that there are other less obvious factors that can significantly influence not only voter turnout, but also an individual’s decision-making process in the voting booth. They reveal that even the most earnest voters can be swayed. Here are four ways that your voting behavior could be influenced on Election Day, without your even realizing it.

Weather. Can hot temperatures influence voter turnout? According to the findings of one study, the answer is yes. When the temperature heats up, it increases physiological arousal. In turn, heightened arousal can increase both antisocial and prosocial behavior— like voting. This phenomenon is in accordance with what’s technically known as excitation transfer theory, which maintains that the excitation from one stimulus can be transferred to influence an individual’s response to another stimulus. In order to investigate whether hot temperatures influence voter turnout, researchers examined the relationship between temperature and voting, using data from presidential elections from 1960 to 2016 in each state in the United States. What did they find? In keeping with excitation transfer theory, changes in temperature were positively related to voter turnout. What’s more, when temperatures were higher, voters were more likely to show leniency with the party in power and support the incumbent party.

Weather, again. According to multiple lines of research, bad weather on an election day drives down voter turnout — possibly swinging the results of an election. But weather could affect more than just voter turnout. Studies show that weather also affects mood, and in turn could influence decision making in the voting booth. Consider research (a working paper) that looked at how weather (measured in terms of precipitation, sunlight exposure, and subjective evaluation) influenced constituents who turned out to vote when candidates were viewed as being more or less risky. Even after the researchers controlled for policy preferences, partisanship, and other pertinent variables, bad weather was found to depress individual mood and risk tolerance, such that voters tended to vote for the candidate who they perceived as less risky. In other words, bad weather made voters in this study more risk-averse.

Competence. Studies show that voters tend to support candidates whose voices and faces they find competent. Yet, what is the simultaneous effect of these two characteristics? Take a two-part study that explored this question. In the first part of the study, participants rated the faces of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives for competence. Then, the faces that were rated the most and least competent were paired with recordings of competent (i.e., lower pitched) and incompetent (i.e., higher pitched) voices to produce “simulated candidates.” In the second part of the study, a separate group of participants voted between these randomly generated pairs of simulated candidates. The results were fascinating. Candidates with competent faces or competent voices garnered more votes - but the effect of facial competence was nearly three times that of vocal competence. In other words, candidates fared better if they had a competent looking face than a competent sounding voice.

Mental overload. Voters use psychological shortcuts (i.e., heuristics) to help them make decisions when they lack information about candidates for office. The way a candidate looks is one particularly potent shortcut voters use to form a judgment about a candidate. However, consider research that points out that forming a judgment on the basis of physical appearance can drive down support for candidates of color because of insidiousness racial stereotypes. One particularly revealing study argued that racial prejudices would be more likely to influence voters’ decision making when voting environments demanded more of their cognitive resources — such as having to choose multiple candidates at once. In experiments involving simple and complex cognitive tasks, the results revealed that black candidates won less support from voters who were cognitively overloaded than from voters who had the “cognitive space” to consciously keep their prejudices in check when voting. And remarkably, this pattern was especially salient among politically liberal voters. Thus, the findings demonstrate that participants who express politically liberal views support black candidates more often than white candidates when the cognitive task was simple — but were less likely to do so when they were mentally overloaded.


A Different Kind of Disadvantage: Candidate Race, Cognitive Complexity, and Voter Choice M Crowder-Meyer, SK Gadarian, J Trounstine, K Vue - Political Behavior, 2018

Van Assche, J., Van Hiel, A., Stadeus, J., Bushman, B. J., De Cremer, D., & Roets, A. (2017). When the heat is on: The effect of temperature on voter behavior in presidential elections. Frontiers in Psychology, 8

Looks and Sounds Like a Winner: Perceptions of Competence in Candidates' Faces and Voices Influences Vote Choice. Klofstad, Casey A .Journal of Experimental Political Science; Washington Vol. 4, Iss. 3, (Winter 2017): 229-240.

Weather, mood, and voting: An experimental analysis of the effect of weather beyond turnout. A Bassi - 2013

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