An Irish election has just past, and an American election is looming, but have you ever considered how exactly you decide who to vote for?
Now, presumably you’ll say that you choose a candidate based on his or her platform, promises, political party affiliation and other such rational criteria. However that is not the whole story. There may be many reasons why we choose candidate A over candidate B, but not all of these are a part of the conscious decision-making process.
For one thing, most of what you know about political candidates you learn in the media. If a political candidate was previously elected in your area, you may have met them in person or had dealings with them yourself. If so, that will make a big impact on your decision. But what if that candidate is not affiliated with the party that is tipped to win? Most voters will not have personally met the taoiseach, the prime minister or president of their country. Instead we watch debates on television, read analyses in the newspapers and chat to our friends about the election on social media. All of these present us with information we use to make decision before voting.
The Harmony Institute in the USA is a non-profit research institute that specialises in measuring the impact of media on social issues, such as voting. They observe voters’ neural responses as they watch excerpts from the presidential debates held within each party. After viewing a live debate excerpt, voters are asked which candidate they prefer, if they would like to support that candidate by a donation, a ‘Like’ on Facebook, or a one-time vote.
The aim of this research is to find the neural signal that predicts a voter’s choice. At the moment science is not able to tell that, but the results from the Harmony Institute are fascinating. For example, during a political debate there are moments of time when the majority of voters listen carefully to what candidates are saying, and moments when voters tune. This research suggests that certain issues compel voters to listen, while others cause them to disengage — even though we know we could be missing information that could cement our voting decision or get us to change our minds.
Although science cannot tell where and when a decision happens — in fact it may not even be possible to signal out the point when a person decides between A or B — knowing that voters have different neurological responses to what a politician says is a huge leap forward in our understanding of the decision-making process.