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Casting about for Your Vote

March 12, 2011
by Wallace Ravven

Death panels. Maybe you flinched when you heard it. Or fought the thought of moving to Canada. Or maybe the expression made perfect sense to you—”Obamacare” was going way too far. One thing is for sure: Whatever your stance, the phrase tapped into strong feelings.

Can two words really hijack a national debate, sweep through the media, and sway public sentiment? Can they ultimately change the way people vote? Psychologists, linguists, and cognitive scientists—many of them astute students of political psychology—believe they can and do. Their research attempts to explain why crafty slogans trump finely crafted speeches, and why straight talk can sometimes win the battle but lose the war. Political psychology helps reveal why even the most charismatic leader with the best solutions can only convince some of the people some of the time, and why even the red-hot-button issues don’t usually determine elections.

Welcome to the murky region where our unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and instincts drive much of our conscious behavior—including our voting behavior. Penetrating these psychological depths helps lead us to a fair understanding of why “those crazy people vote the way they do.” Why you do. Why I do.

Political campaigns inevitably take advantage of what Robert MacCoun at the Goldman School of Public Policy calls “mental short cuts”: strategies likely hard-wired and inherited from simpler times that enable us to navigate a storm of input that threatens to swamp our rational faculties. “With the sheer number of decisions you have to make and the amount of information you are processing, it would take an extravagant amount of thinking to deliberate on everything all day,” MacCoun says.

So you make quick calculations. And since strong emotions such as fear and anger trigger stronger unconscious responses, people can quickly leap to conclusions, particularly if they can easily picture a threat. This explains why when we smell smoke, we are likely to first think “fire” not “fireplace.” Of course, an individual’s overall outlook, background, and values also help determine how he or she mentally processes a smell, a sight, a word. A pair of words.

Death panels. I picture a grey table lined with soulless officials stamping “Rejected” on request after request for life-saving treatments. Such a scenario is easy to picture and sure to unleash fear, anger, and even rage in some people. The death panel claim resonates with what Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls the “conservative conceptual frame.” He believes two frames of thinking define the bipolar American political landscape—opposing perspectives that reflect unconscious beliefs and attitudes. The conservative frame’s watchwords are “life, liberty, individual responsibility,” while the liberal frame’s watchwords are “social responsibility, fairness, empathy.” These, he says, largely distinguish people’s responses to political campaigns.

“A liberal hears ‘universal healthcare’ and thinks ‘morality and fairness.’ A conservative is more likely to think, ‘That’s ridiculous. People should have gotten insurance for themselves,'” Lakoff says.

For champions of liberty, the term death panels strikes a believable and threatening chord. But here’s the non-intuitive thing: Even though liberals believed the idea to be absurd, they were nonetheless lured into the conservative frame. That’s because, Lakoff adds, refuting a claim—decrying the term death panels as a gross distortion—can’t compete with a direct claim. So the debate stayed focused on personal freedom for both sides. For a while, we were all chained to the death panel table, arguing about liberty.

Leaving aside the question of who believed the death panel threat was real and who saw it as a dynamite polarizing tool, Lakoff and his colleagues find that Republican strategists understand marketing principles and use them effectively to reinforce their constituents’ largely unconscious conceptual frames. In contrast, Democratic messaging tends to explain why policies benefit American citizens of all stripes; more rationality, less finesse.

So opponents of the health care overhaul hammered away with appeals to liberty and personal freedom, while reform proponents communicated in paragraphs and white papers. The liberal Organizing for America campaign circulated a letter from David Axelrod intended to help “spread the facts about healthcare reform.” Axelrod’s letter offered to “distill” the healthcare reform proposal into 24 talking points. Three sets of eight, no less. Twenty-four policy talking points versus a single expression: death panels.

It’s easy to see why the phrase still echoes. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 30 percent of seniors now believe that the health care law allows government Medicare panels to make end-of-life decisions.

But social psychology also teaches us that partisan media preach to the choir. People primarily pay attention to messages they agree with, and tune out the others. As Stanford political psychologist Jon Krosnick says, “People don’t go hunting for what they don’t believe.” When a campaign claim grabs the spotlight, it will disproportionately capture the attention of voters already inclined to support it. Few people are persuaded to switch sides.

In one of the few systematic studies of media influence, Berkeley economics professor Stefano DellaVigna examined the effect of Fox News on Republican voting in the 2000 presidential election. He found that Fox helped sway up to 0.7 percent of Americans to cast a Republican vote when they wouldn’t have otherwise, adding about 200,000 Republican votes to the national tally. This isn’t a big number, but in the extremely tight 2000 presidential election it might have made a difference in certain states.

Important caveats apply: The added Republican votes came mainly from habitual non-voting Republicans energized by Fox to cast a ballot; relatively few Democrats switched their allegiance—typical resistance to changing beliefs and behavior. “Biased media give their audience new reasons, new excuses, to feel the way they already feel and to vote the way they already were likely to vote,” explains Jon Krosnick, an influential Stanford political psychologist.

Perceived bias can play out in interesting ways. MacCoun and colleagues surveyed 1,000 people, telling them a study was about to come out either supporting or attacking one of four issues: gun control, medical marijuana, school vouchers, and capital punishment. It was hypothesized that liberals would favor the positive support for gun control and medical marijuana, whereas conservatives would favor the last two. In fact, both sides favored support for gun control and medical marijuana, but conservatives were more likely to assume the researcher was a liberal. Both sides showed skepticism of the studies they didn’t support. “It’s a kind of naïve realism,” MacCoun says. “The thinking goes like this: ‘I believe something simply because it’s true. So if a study supports what I think is true, it is simply observing what is true in the world. But if a study finds something that is different than what I believe, it must be finding something other than the truth, so it must be biased.'”

The fact that we tune out messages to which we don’t subscribe means that most political campaigns are actually aimed at the minority in the middle—what might be called the Great Undecideds. Members of this contingent consider themselves Independents, or they simply don’t care, or they don’t vote.

“One of the ironies of modern American politics is that campaigns are geared toward those who don’t have a decisive opinion and many who won’t vote anyway,” says Jack Glaser of Berkeley’s School of Public Policy. “There are definitely ‘high information’ centrist or independent voters who closely watch candidates and positions, but a lot of undecided voters have simply not been paying attention.”

MacCoun finds that conservatives tend to be clearer than liberals about where they stand on a novel issue. A conservative position, for example, may be: “Drugs are bad, so they should be banned.” A liberal might offer a more nuanced (or more convoluted) position: “Addicts commit crimes to support their habits; even though addiction is bad, legalizing those drugs would protect the public.” The liberal position acknowledges “value tradeoffs”: the recognition that, for any gain, there is a cost. Of course, once you acknowledge the existence of tradeoffs, you are obliged to choose the most valued goal—protecting the public, in the case above—even if that goal has a downside like the legalization of harmful drugs. When a proposed policy threatens what someone considers taboo, the very idea of a tradeoff can trigger vigorous denial, anger, even fury, and can prompt a near-absolute refusal to consider compromise, Berkeley political psychologist Philip Tetlock has found.

Take the idea of doctors discussing end-of-life care with patients and families—not the death panel caricature, but simply an open discussion. To some, such a conversation seems financially sensible as well as compassionate. To others, any such consideration is off the table because it threatens what to them is a taboo—the sanctity of the individual life.

How does this play out in political campaigns? Tetlock, on the faculty of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, studies leadership styles that either assert simple yes-or-no solutions, no tradeoffs necessary, or that acknowledge the unwelcome necessity of tradeoffs. In contests for business leadership positions, the black-and-white approach usually gains the competitive edge. The political implications are clear. We know, rationally, that candidates who promise the world can never deliver the goods, but voters tend to favor candidates who promise simpler solutions. By this metric, Jimmy Carter’s willingness to acknowledge national problems and uncertainties was no match for Ronald Reagan’s irrepressible optimism.

In a related study, Don Moore of the Haas School of Business has found that confident people tend to attract the most support, leading to a “super-confidence” contest. Opponents express their positions with increasing certainty at the risk of decreasing accuracy. The most super-confident tends to win the day.

And yet Moore also finds a small but significant relationship between high expressions of confidence and accuracy. The most super-confident candidate is not just more likely to win, but also somewhat more accurate and closer to the truth of a given controversial issue.

A large body of political psychology research shows that people work up a sort of running tally as they learn about a candidate. We update our tallies over time, but as our sense of a candidate solidifies, we become more resistant to changing our views. Krosnick recently developed a model that describes how our views and voting preferences evolve and coalesce to favor a particular candidate.

At first, most candidates benefit from a modest honeymoon period as people view them in mildly positive light. As candidates present their positions in earnest, impressions take firmer shape, and though many voters change their views over the course of a campaign, information acquired early in the season tends to have a greater impact than that gained later. This is particularly striking in relation to negative information, which is especially damaging when acquired early in a campaign.

Krosnick calls this the “asymmetrical” model of voting behavior because of the greater early effects and greater negative impacts. Thomas Eagleton’s 1972 shock therapy revelation and Joe Biden’s vaunted claims of scholarship in the 1988 primary campaign both come to mind.

One of political psychology’s key insights is that people’s motivations for supporting a candidate are not monolithic. You can’t tell how someone will vote simply based on the list of issues they cite. So among all of those who vote for a given candidate, maybe 30 percent think an economic stimulus plan is key, while another 20 percent might place energy policy above all else. Polls may show the list of issues people care about, “but it’s the strength of their attitude on individual issues that matters most in their voting decision,” Krosnick says.

The 2008 political contest put racial prejudice to the test for the first time in an American presidential election. Krosnick and others found that 50 to 60 percent of potential voters candidly admitted having reservations about electing an African-American president. The numbers would seem to predict an election wipeout for Obama. But it’s the relative importance placed on an issue that determines voting behavior. Any issue that voters felt more strongly about than race—the economy, energy policy, whatever—could trump their garden-variety prejudice. In the end, racial prejudice cut Obama’s potential vote by about 5 percent, but people eager to vote for the first African-American president added 2 to 3 percent, limiting that loss to about 2.5 percent of total votes.

When all is said and done, one of the best predictors of how people will vote is their political party affiliation. Another top predictor is voter ideology. In spite of common wisdom, when the time comes to cast the ballot, people don’t place their personal circumstances above all else, Krosnick notes. They do tend to vote along party lines, but research shows that people ultimately vote less on their own pocketbooks than on their sense of the “condition of the country,” particularly in times of great uncertainty.

So, by default, the candidate who most successfully wins over the Independents is apt to win the day, and the larger that block of Independents, the more power they wield. Health care. The deficit. Illegal immigrants. Outsourcing. Some combination of candidate skill and charisma, campaign smarts, and public unease will determine which issues gain traction with Independents. And how much traction they gain will determine what the Great Undecideds decide.

Wallace Ravven ’72 is a Bay Area freelance science writer focusing on evolutionary biology and biomedical research. His foray into political psychology helped him realize how our instinct to resist unwelcome messages helps us deflect propaganda, but makes it easier to ignore hard truths. He wrote about research to track down the source of lead poisoning in Monterey County children in the Winter 2010 issue of California.
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