Why people vote the way they do

by Joanne Black / 26 September, 2017

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

After Trump, Brexit and the comparatively sane New Zealand election, Joanne Black looks at the psychology – and genetics – of how we vote.

Danny Osborne has a word of caution for those who assume that young people are politically radical. Odds on, says the University of Auckland senior lecturer in psychology, young people will vote the same way as their parents.

“If your parents are Democrat, you’re very likely to be a Democrat yourself. If your parents are Republican, you’re very likely to be a Republican,” Osborne says.

“We know the correlation between parent-child party identification is one of the strongest relationships you can find in the literature on political socialisation.”

The link is so strong, he says, that there are suggestions it even has a genetic component.

Scientific American reported on the largest recent study of political beliefs that looked at more than 12,000 twin pairs. It suggested that the development of political attitudes depends about 60% on the environment in which people grow up and about 40% on genes.

“Obviously you can’t say you are genetically a Republican, but the types of policies that the Republicans or Democrats propose seem to tap into something that is underlying at a genetic level,” says the study leader, genetic epidemiologist Peter Hatemi.

The research showed that although political leanings are not in themselves genetic, how we process information and how we identify, perceive and react to threats are partially inherited. It is those characteristics, psychologists increasingly believe, that can influence our political choices.

Auckland senior lecturer Danny Osborne.

The study supports other research that generally suggests people who are open to new experiences tend to be left-wing voters, and those who prefer structure and certainty tend to be right-wing voters. However, almost all researchers caution that “there is a lot going on” when it comes to trying to build a model that will reliably predict people’s voting patterns.

Further, whatever influences our early leanings, Osborne says that by the time most of us are in our late-twenties, our voting patterns are largely established for life. “There’s a bit of fluctuation in terms of people’s voting choice in their late teens and early twenties, but generally speaking, your party identification at 28 years old is pretty much going to be your party identification at 60 or 70.”

However, something particularly unusual, such as a catastrophe or a polarising policy or candidate, can change people’s votes. 

Osborne helped organise a lecture series in Auckland about the psychology of voting, based partly on the so-called System Justification Theory, which tries to explain why people tend to vote to maintain the status quo even when, on the face of it, the current system disadvantages them.

The theory applies not only to voting and is observed by academics who seem perplexed by public inertia to agitate for change. Despite a growing focus on society’s inequality, not only has a revolution not yet arrived but it does not even seem to be just around the corner.

Understanding when, why and what motivates people to gravitate toward specific ideologies is a science that is still fairly young, Osborne says.

Professor John Jost.

Reassurance vs chaos

One of the oft-cited academics in the study of the psychology of voting is John Jost, Professor of Psychology and Politics and Co-Director of the Center for Social and Political Behavior at New York University, who took part in the lecture series in Auckland.

He developed System Justification Theory to explain why most people, including some who are doing poorly, hold attitudes that tend to maintain rather than challenge the status quo.

“This is because stability and hierarchy inherently provide reassurance and structure whereas social change and equality imply greater chaos and unpredictability,” Jost explains.

One reason may be that those who have the fewest resources may feel least able to cope with change, particularly if it might be messy.

“People may be unwilling or unable psychologically to take that on when they are feeling threatened or experiencing adverse levels of uncertainty,” says Jost.

“So it follows that the psychological appeal of conservative and authoritarian leaders and opinions should be strengthened when needs to reduce uncertainty and threat are relatively high, and the appeal of progressive and liberal leaders and opinions should be strengthened when these needs are low.”

According to research people who like order, structure and hierarchy tend to vote conservatively, while those who are open to new experiences, tend to vote more liberally.

The theory, Jost says, has been borne out by analysis of studies involving thousands of participants over many years in different countries. In a review, for instance, he and his students reviewed approximately 100 studies involving more than 350,000 participants from around the world. They found that people who perceive the world as more dangerous in terms of crime, disease, and terrorism are more likely to be conservative and that exposure to a terrorist attack--in the U.S., U.K., Spain, Germany, or Israel--was associated with conservative shift. There is no study demonstrating that exposure to a terrorist attack precipitates liberal shift.

The notion that in times of fear, say, post 9/11 or a global financial crisis, people tend to vote conservatively seems reasonably well-established. In particular, considerations of mortality have a way of focusing--and perhaps narrowing--people’s minds, encouraging them to vote for more conservative and authoritarian candidates.

University of Birmingham’s Tereza Capelos.

Hope, anger and fear

But while anger and fear may be strong motivations for voters, Senior Lecturer in Political Psychology at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, Dr Tereza Capelos says it would be wrong to think they are the only emotions driving political behaviour.

She says the late Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda argued that hope was an important emotion to motivate people to believe that they could make a difference by participating. “Hope and the fact that there is a vision of the future that you yourself can do something towards and are empowered to do so are very important. These two together stimulate political engagement and mobilisation.”

But emotions are not themselves static, she points out. If people feel angry or afraid about something but then have the subject explained to them in a way that reduces their anger and fear, how they respond or vote might also change.

“Emotions are based on appraisals. They are not independent of cognitive thinking. Once you start changing the appraisal, the emotion changes as well.

“What was interesting with Brexit, for instance, is right before the election, the folks that were voting for Britain to leave the European Union were the ones who, in the polls, were indicating high levels of anger. And the ones voting Remain were the ones indicating high levels of anxiety. Yet afterwards, the folks who had voted Leave became the ones who started experiencing higher levels of anxiety, while the ones who voted Remain were the ones experiencing anger.

“We saw an emotional flick. So although we treat our models of political behaviour as static, and we say ‘these people are the angry ones’ and ‘these people feel afraid’ – people experience all kinds of emotions, and at a particular point in time one might be more prevalent but they can change.”

Although political parties usually hold out the hope of a better future, Capelos is interested in a trend to romanticise the past – epitomised by Donald Trump’s slogan,“Make America Great Again”. It is an example, she says, of the rise of reactionary politics.

“If you look at the research we do on political emotions, there is almost like a reversal here. The older generations are the ones that usually are more risk-averse.

“However, what we have seen recently is the rise of a different political phenomenon that we call reactionism. It’s like the desire of wanting to go back, to do away with the new, to do away with the present and move back to what existed before. Now what existed before is in everybody’s imagination a different thing. But if you leave it open enough, you can capture the support of a lot of people with this imagined past.

“You see it in Europe with the rise of populist parties or extreme right-wing parties. They all advocate this desire to go back to an imagined past, and we see it in the Trump rhetoric of ‘Make America Great Again’, which implies that America was once great and we’ve lost it.

“We also saw it a lot in [former Ukip leader] Nigel Farage’s rhetoric during Brexit, and it was able to capture the desires and the imaginations of all these people.”

The notion of going back to a more comfortable past not only appeals to an older generation but also capitalises on the aversion to a risky future, Capelos says. “It is very complicated and I don’t think there is one statistical or theoretical model that can get to the bottom of all this. At the same time, you have populism and you have nationalistic rhetoric going on.”

Nigel Farage after the vote. Photo/Getty Images

Scary multiculturism

Capelos, of Greek origin, married to an American and now living in the UK, was personally dismayed by the Brexit vote, but says it illustrates how a swathe of the population feels no connection to liberal and inclusive policies.

“For a lot of people, the uncertainty of a future that involves immigrants, that involves a multicultural society that is more diverse than the level of diversity that they can stomach, is something very, very scary. The rest of us who don’t see a diverse world as a scary place cannot discount those people’s fears and cannot dismiss them.

“Some people think Trump is a safe choice because, again, if you associate him with this narrative of going back to this great America that we had for them, that’s the safe mental space they want to be in and they don’t necessarily care how they’re going to get there or who’s going to get them there as long as someone can get them there. We have to engage with it.”

One problem with the real or imagined past, Capelos says, is that it was often a racist and sexist place. “When you analyse the narrative, what you see is a very particular gender profile and it can be a very sexist narrative. It often promotes a particular idea – usually of male supremacy and white supremacy – but that’s because it’s linked, again, with an imagined lifestyle in the 50s and 60s in a very sexist world where women were supposed to think and do and dress in particular ways and there was a very defined space.

“It goes back to this idea of people who are comfortable within boundaries and uncomfortable in lives without boundaries. They are the ones who tend to like this kind of narrative. Think of someone who is very comfortable living in a rigid environment that involves rules, that involves the ways people should behave, that involves a clear idea of who’s in, who’s out, who’s good, who’s bad, who’s black, who’s white, and these rigid boundaries in multicultural open societies have been broken, or at least we try to break them as much as we can and we try to promote an idea of diversity. But that’s a very different narrative from the one where people feel safe being with people of their own kind.

“Once you hear this story of the America that used to be white or that used to be smart, that used to be pure, that used to be American – all these constructed ideas of what America used to be – then you start seeing how the people who adopt these ideas are the ones who are more comfortable being in a closed society, who have clear limits between where their life ends and where somebody else’s life begins and that is also about their rights. Their rights are very particular, and the rights of those who are outside that society are very particular and moving in and out is not allowed or appropriate. Mobility is a problem for them, whereas multicultural societies try to strive for mobility, for diversity and for breaking those boundaries.

US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Resentment from the forgotten people

Capelos also points out that people vote not only to attain the outcome they most want, but also to avoid the outcome they least want.

“With Brexit, many of the Leave voters were not really looking forward to this new society that was promised to them, but they wanted to get away from what the present to them represented. A lot of these people were from the Midlands and north of the UK in places that were almost silos and almost forgotten by the affluent London population.”

It is a reminder, she says, of how easily politicians and the media can forget about the concerns of people who are not particularly engaged with politics.

She says that though Western democracies have largely moved away from nepotistic and paternalistic behaviour, “it hasn’t changed people’s main considerations: the well-being of their family and having food and good prospects for their children. But some of these forgotten people who were literally left behind in the system don’t see a prosperous future for themselves in the current multicultural society and they feel resentful. They resent the ‘others’ who come from the outside and, as they see it, steal the benefits from them.

“How can we make people get in touch with reality and, second, appreciate the opportunities that are there for them?

“The irony of it is that eventually they’re going to be much worse off with the option that they’ve chosen but through no fault of their own, because they don’t have the sophistication to be able to have the ability to judge these things.”

But who are the educated elite to say what is the “right” outcome in a democratic vote? Capelos admits it is difficult not to sound elitist.

“But there have been studies to try to understand why people voted the way they did, particularly for Brexit because it seems such a counterfactual vote. And when you try to unpack what was behind their considerations, we find people voting on the basis of their own pocketbook – they wanted a better present and a better future for themselves. Now if you statistically look at the projections of the economy for the next few years, or the projections of their local economy for even a longer trajectory, you see that with Brexit they are not going to be better off.”

Brits protesting against Brexit. Photo/Getty Images

When people make wrong assumptions

Capelos says she interviewed voters who plainly anticipated that if Britain dropped out of the European Union, immigrants would go home, thereby freeing up resources for British people.

“That is a big assumption to make and it’s actually a wrong assumption to make. I was talking to people in London who told me, ‘We’re going to vote for Brexit, because once the immigrants leave, there will be more affordable housing for us.’ And you think, ‘Really? What kind of information are you basing that second part of your argument on?’

“It’s not how resources are distributed in society, so in a way it’s a naive desire, but it’s still a desire that needs to be taken seriously, because otherwise it creates grievances and actual outcomes that are not beneficial to anybody.

“The Brexit case is a very clear example of that. If you ignore people’s grievances and they have the power to vote, then you as a nation have to deal with even more grievances and the initial grievances are not addressable at that point. So what’s going on here in the UK is a big irony.”

Plainly, voters’ perception and understanding of politicians themselves, and of the policies they are promoting, matter. But again, other factors intrude.

Osborne cites the example of so-called Obamacare, the Affordable Healthcare Act promoted by US President Barack Obama but deeply opposed by much of the American public, including some of those who stood to gain the most from it.

One of the reasons for the opposition, Osborne says, seemed racially motivated.

He says experiments using randomly assigned participants had the healthcare policy explained to some of the participants as being a policy promoted by former president Bill Clinton, while the same policy was described to other participants as being promoted by Barack Obama. The results showed that when it was described as Clinton’s policy, it was much more broadly supported than when it was described as Obama’s.

New Zealand is not exempt from racial influences in politics, Osborne notes.

“I think to some extent we have seen a lot of blurring in the way racial politics are talked about in New Zealand. In the US, it does tend to fall quite closely along the left-right dimension so left-wing politicians tend to be more pro racial diversity and right-wing politicians tend to be more conservative in that regard, whereas in New Zealand the Labour Party has come out and proposed some pretty regressive and antiquated policies that I think are a prime example of racially motivated or racially disguised policy proposals.

“For example, when you bring the housing crisis to New Zealanders’ attention, or to Aucklanders in particular, I think they get this image of Asian foreign investors stealing people’s land.

“The Labour Party got hold of the real estate agents’ sales, and regardless of whether someone had been born in New Zealand and had lived here their entire life, if their last name was Chan, they were [deemed] a foreign investor. So I think that is a big example of how these issues differ in the US and New Zealand. Racially targeted policies are unfortunate to begin with, but the fact that left-wing parties, which are the ones that are supposed to be fighting for less inequality in society, are proposing these policies [is unfortunate].”

Despite politicians regularly dangling attractive policies in front of voters, Osborne says, research shows that self-interest plays a role in voters’ decisions “only when the outcomes are very clear and very large”.

“A famous example was in California in the late 1970s when a tax reform policy was presented to the public and the newspapers laid out specifically how voting for this policy would affect people’s pocketbooks, and in that particular scenario you saw a lot of people voting out of self-interest.”

Otherwise, it seems, politicians and the media may regularly overestimate the public’s interest in policy details.

Given that most voters in the US cannot differentiate a right-wing policy from a left-wing policy, Osborne says, psychologists might be accused of over-thinking the whole subject, especially since what motivates people to change their vote is perhaps less important than what makes them vote or not vote in the first place.

The power of the group

In Auckland, Osborne says New Zealand research shows that the more disenfranchised the group to which you belong, the less likely you are to vote.

“A perception that ‘my group is doing worse than other groups’ ironically undermines the willingness of people in that group to go out and vote,” he says. “If you feel like your group has been disadvantaged in society, you tend to feel there is no way you can change the system, so you don’t vote, which then decreases the likelihood of change.”

Simple logistics are also a factor, says Osborne, who is American and moved to New Zealand five years ago. “The further you live from a polling booth, the less likely you are to vote, and again, this proportionately disadvantages minorities.”

He applauds New Zealand’s voting registration policies, which mean you do not have to be a citizen to vote, and other rules that encourage rather than discourage participation.

“In the early 80s, the voter turnout was 92% in New Zealand – it’s now dropped to about 74%, and while the decline is concerning, it seems unheard of when you contrast it with the United States where about 40% of the population votes.”

But though he thinks New Zealand “must be doing something right” to achieve its voter turnout, he believes a lot more public participation is required to turn around some of the statistics that New Zealanders should be less proud of.

“We know, for example, that inequality exists in New Zealand. We know that pay discrepancies exist between men and women, we know that Maori life expectancy is seven years shorter than non-Maori New Zealanders’, so why aren’t there more pushes for social change?

“Basically, inequality is all around us, but social change is very infrequent and people’s protests and stances against these inequities are also infrequent.”

Another factor affecting voter turnout is that it is depressed when campaigns are negative. But Capelos says participation is boosted when campaigns are neck and neck to the end.

“If people feel complacent – that there will be a landslide so the outcome is predetermined – then you see apathy and disengagement, so it’s good to have a neck-and-neck situation.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the October 22, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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