Undecided Voters Not So Undecided After All

THURSDAY Aug. 21, 2008 -- The great swath of undecided voters who typically decide elections might not be so undecided after all.

A new study suggests that individuals have unconscious preferences that can more accurately predict the final vote than standard measures.

A test to measure unconscious associations may give pollsters a heads-up on election outcomes.

"Typically, it's the undecided voter that gives politicians a hard time. It's the undecided voters that you need to get," said senior study author Bertram Gawronski, Canada Research Chair on Social Psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. "This study shows that by using these measures, there is some potential for improving the prediction of election outcomes."

The paper was published in the Aug. 22 issue of Science.

Conventional wisdom dictates that people make choices based on conscious, informed thought and careful weighing of information.

Recent research suggests this might not be the case, and, in fact, there may be ways to measure these unconscious associations.

"The inspiration for this study came from the development of a particular class of measures that enables us to assess these automatic mental associations," Gawronski explained. "Over the past couple of years, a lot of research has shown that these measures are able to predict behaviors that psychologists have had a hard time predicting with standard methodology or self-report."

The authors of the study, based both at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and at the University of Padova in Italy, quizzed 129 residents of Vicenza, Italy, about their attitudes regarding the planned enlargement of a U.S. military base in that city.

The questions were designed to assess both conscious beliefs as well as unconscious associations via the "implicit association test." In the latter case, for example, citizens were asked to categorize pictures of the U.S. military base and positive and negative words as quickly as possible.

The exercises were repeated one week apart.

Participants who initially claimed they were undecided ended up making decisions based on their unconscious associations.

But for those who started out with definite opinions, their automatic associations became more consistent over time. This suggests that conscious beliefs might actually be working on unconscious associations.

The research may also have specific implications for the looming U.S. presidential elections.

"This type of measure in the domain of prejudice and stereotyping has found that, in North America, there is a large proportion of individuals with relatively negative views of African-Americans. Even people who hold very strong egalitarian opinions or beliefs sometimes show negative associations," Gawronski said. "This can influence their voting behavior, particularly for undecided voters, in a way that they may not be aware of."

Gawronski pointed to case of black candidate Tom Bradley, who unsuccessfully ran for governor of California in both 1982 and 1986. Bradley lost by a slim margin, even though earlier polls had given him a clear advantage, giving rise to the term the "Bradley Effect."

"We know that there is still a strong prevalence of automatic negative associations regarding African-Americans, and this may have distorted people's perception of the political process, public debates, etc.," Gawronski said. "They've made up their mind who they're going to vote for, even though they're undecided when the polls are taken. This could happen again in the U.S. . . . It may be the case that the big advance that Obama has at this point may completely shift in the election."

More information

Find out more about how the brain works at Harvard's Whole Brain Atlas.

Posted: August 2008


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