Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The biology behind voting

On October 14, Townshippers, along with their fellow Canadians will be filing into the voting booths to elect who will represent them in Ottawa. We often think that we are fully in control when we are choosing which little white circle to fill in, but two studies released recently is making the traditional notion of voters carefully choosing sides based on candidate, party performance and values look antiquated.

For some people deciding who to vote for is not a demanding task. Like a die-hard hockey fan, their loyalty to a party is undeniable. But for those not firmly entrenched, adding up all the debates, sound bytes, mistakes and so on, can be demanding. Take the race for MP of Brome-Missisquoi, for instance, where the battle is between Bloq Quebecois incumbent Christian Ouellet and Liberal Denis Paradis. For those voters who wish to express their preferences on environmental issues, it is not a straightforward decision.

Both have a history of service on Parliament’s Environment and Sustainable Development Committee but Ouellet has stronger personal environmental credentials having served as chair of the Solar Energy Society of Canada and also as co-founder of Quebec Solaire. Ouellet’s party, on the other hand, has no legitimate chance of forming a government and, as such, are relegated more to a role of influencing legislation rather than instigating it. Paradis, on the other hand, is a member of a party that is really pushing its green side under leader Stephane Dion who continually emphasizes the importance of his carbon tax, a plan to cut income tax and boost taxes on activities the emit greenhouse gases. If you don’t wish to vote for either of these, a vote for any party will still secure $1.75 of funding for that party assuming they get 2% of the vote. How do you make up your mind with choices like these? A recent study shows that your biology can influence your decision in ways you weren’t aware of.

A group of American scientists from backgrounds in political science and psychology released a study in last week’s edition of the journal Science which shows that physiological traits have a measurable impact on political attitudes. After filling out a form to identify their political beliefs, the participants of the study were exposed to two slide shows. One included three threatening pictures of a large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed person with a bloody face, and a maggot-infested wound and the other included three non-threatening pictures of a bunny, a bowl of fruit and a happy child. While both groups reacted similarly to the non-threatening slides, there was an important difference between reactions to the threatening slides. Participants with a high level of support for protective policies (increased military spending, support for the Iraq war, etc.) tended to have stronger reactions to the threatening slides as indicated by skin-conductance which measures levels of stress. This difference has important implications including the fact that politic affiliations may be, in part, genetic shedding new light on an old saying: like father, like son.

While your genetics may play a part in political choices, it is certainly not the be all and end all of decision making. The conscious brain must do the rest of the work right? Not according to Bertram Gawronski from the Western University and two of his colleagues who found that they could predict the future stance on an issue of an undecided individual one week in advance by measuring certain unconscious impulses. Participants in their study, citizens of Vicenza, Italy, were asked to fill out a questionnaire on the enlargement of a U.S. military base in their area and were subsequently submitted to an implicit association test. This test asked the participants to associate, as quickly as possible, pictures of a U.S. army base and either positive or negative words. The speed at which they associate two items can reveal subconscious preferences. The researchers found that, among those undecided about their opinion on the base, reaction times in the implicit association test allowed them to make good predictions of their decision one week in advance. This demonstrates that, although the participants were consciously undecided, a stance on the issue had already been taken in their subconscious. This means that so called swing voters that political parties vie viciously for, may have already decided.

Each of these studies, when published in the mainstream media, seemed to elicit negative responses, primarily from angry partisans trying to find some rationale for the choices of their political adversaries. This interpretation seems, to me, quite selective. Research into this kind of psychology isn’t intended to portray voters as robotic automatons filling in ballots as their genetics and subconscious see fit; another, positive, message can be excised. Knowledge of the genetic and sub-conscious components of our decision-making process, can be used to our benefit by weeding out knee-jerk reactions to politicians and policies leaving us to better able to vote for our values, regardless of what those values may be.

As seen in the September 24, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

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