What is decision-making psychology and what has it got to do with how we vote?

The psychology of decision-making demonstrates that every conscious decision we make is influenced by our emotions, unconscious thoughts, biases, and prejudices.

These influences are mental shortcuts that help us make faster choices. We have learnt to take these mental shortcuts as a matter of evolutionary survival.

For example, hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors could not waste time standing about debating whether a woolly mammoth was going to attack them or not. But how does the psychology of decision-making work in today’s society? Furthermore, what can it tell us about the way we cast our votes?

Voting is a way of expressing who we are. Of belonging to a larger group that believe in our core principles.

“Our political ideologies are strongly linked to our values, and we use politics as a means of sharing those values with others.” Tamara Avant, Ph.D., department chair South University, Savannah

Interestingly, psychology can be a pretty reliable decision-making predictor of how we vote. Studies show that how we react to factors such as the weather or sports results, or how fearful or easily disgusted we are can be indicators of voting preferences.

So why do we vote the way we do? Here are some of the reasons that explain decision-making psychology, and explain why we vote:

1. We vote for the first name we see on the ballot

Surely, we wouldn’t vote for the first candidate on the ballot? Well, studies in decision-making psychology suggest that we do. Voters who are not sure about who to vote for and want to get it over with will simply put their cross against the first name they see.

As a result of this, candidates who have their names listed at the top receive around 2.3% more votes on average. But that is just the average. Sometimes they get as much as 6-7% more. However, voters won’t vote for the name at the top if they know a lot about the election or are interested in politics.

2. The more disgusted we are the more we tend to vote conservative

Studies have shown that the political right-wing is easily disgusted. In one study, participants were asked to rate their level of disgust to questions and situations, such as ‘a man eating a bowl of writhing worms’, or ‘you find out your friend only changes their underwear once a week’.

They were then asked about their political views. The results showed that the more easily disgusted tended to be conservative.

But what has politics got to do with disgust? It’s all to do with evolution and survival. Our innate instinct of disgust protects us from disease. Disgust is aroused when we see things that might make us ill, like food that has gone off, or excrement. It helps us to avoid harm.

Research suggests this harm avoidance is tied in with politics. Liberals view it in association with a need for fairness and justice. Whereas conservatives connect it with loyalty, authority, and most importantly, purity. It is this focus on purity that makes conservatives feel disgusted more than liberals.

3. We vote for the most attractive candidate

Really? Are we that shallow that we vote for looks instead of policies? Well, yes we do, but it’s not as frivolous as you might think. Again, it goes back to evolutionary survival.

But first, what exactly is attractiveness? Experts have devised a strict set of measurements that indicate the ideal ratio of the perfect face. And it is perfectly symmetrical. So why do we find symmetrical faces attractive? Because asymmetrical ones signpost a genetic abnormality or disease.

Our ancestors would have believed that mating with a strong and healthy person would give them the best chance of offspring that would survive. This is one aspect of decision-making psychology that is instinctual.

But in the 21st century, there’s more to it. We associate attractive people with other attractive qualities. This is the ‘halo effect. We believe that good-looking people are also kind, trustworthy, loyal and hard-working. Just more reasons to vote for them.

4. You are more likely to vote if your parents voted

In my house, it was normal to hear political arguments. This was because my dad was a staunch socialist and my mother voted conservative. In our windows on Election Day, we would have a confusing display of both Conservative and Labour posters.

But I grew up with an interest in politics thanks to my parent’s bickering. As a result, I’ve voted in every election since the age of 18. Furthermore, studies show that this is pretty much the case. If your parents vote and take an interest in politics it is very likely that you will too.

“You get this situation whereby if you vote when you’re young in the first three elections, that’s likely to predict you continue voting.” Political Scientist Mark Franklin

5. Create an atmosphere of fear if you want people to vote conservative, but not too much

Can you really use the psychology of decision-making to frighten people into voting for you? Research suggests that when the public is fearful, they tend to vote for right-wing candidates. This can be in times of economic downfall, war, terror attacks, or any kind of uncertainty. However, if a conservative is in power and has not ‘solved’ the problem, the electorate will quickly turn.

Moreover, there are other studies that show if you push the fear agenda too far, the public will start to examine what they read in more detail and search for the truth. So a fear-mongering campaign can actually backfire.

6. Bad weather affects who you vote for

There’s a widely held belief in the UK that rain affects Labour voters. But is this true? Well, yes and no. When turnout is high, left-wing candidates do well.

However, in countries where it is difficult to vote, for instance, getting to the polling station or having to provide multiple forms of identity, bad weather can affect voters. And in particular, left-wing voters.

But where it is relatively easy to vote, bad weather does not have any effect. Studies looked at the correlation between inclement weather and voter turnout in Sweden, where it is easy to vote. They found no significant effect of rain on voters.

However, this is different in the US. In 2000, political scientists analysed voting patterns of the presidential voting campaign between Al Gore and George W Bush. During this time, the country battled severe weather conditions, including droughts and floods.

Previous studies show that voters lash out at governments and blame them for anything from a poor economy to bad weather. Al Gore lost between 1.6 and 3.6% of the vote because the ‘states were too dry or too wet’.

For many people, voting is a gut reaction to lifelong held beliefs. For those that change their mind, however, it might be worth remembering that the psychology of decision-making can have a big influence on who we put our cross next to on the ballot paper.

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  1. Josh Cripps

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