The Secret Voter in Your Brain


A consistent theme here at Neuromarketing is that asking people about their future actions can be a very unreliable predictor of that behavior. Nobody knows this better than political pollsters, who are often surprised by actual voting results that conflict with polls taken just before Election Day, and sometimes even with polls taken after voters have cast their ballots. This is sometimes attributed to a reluctance to reveal one’s true preference or the desire to appear “politically correct” to the pollster; exit poll failures are almost certainly due to this problem. In other cases, voters may actually believe they will vote for a candidate, only to choose another in the voting booth. That may be due to an unacknowledged bias on the part of voters. Black candidates, for example, often fare better in polls than in election results. Now, scientists are attempting to bypass what poll subjects say and look inside their minds – and there’s a way that YOU can check your own hidden biases:

A couple of professors at the University of Washington have devised a test that might give candidates a clearer idea what they are dealing with because it bypasses voters’ mouths and gets into their heads.

The findings they announced Tuesday suggest polls overestimate support for Barack Obama and underestimate support for Hillary Clinton. They asked voters whom they planned to vote for, and 42 percent said Obama, versus 34 percent who chose Clinton. Then the volunteers took a version of the Implicit Association Test, which requires rapid responses to words or images on a computer screen.

The IAT, which was developed by University of Washington psychology Professor Anthony Greenwald, has a proven record for measuring unconscious bias. The idea is that you make selections before your conscious self has time to screen your deeper feelings.

Clinton came out ahead with 48 percent to Obama’s 25 percent. [From The body politic’s shifty mind.]

Of course, these results shouldn’t be interpreted as a more accurate poll of voter intentions. Even if a voter has an implicit bias that makes Clinton appear stronger, he may still choose to vote for Obama. Voting is a process that involves a fair amount of cognitive analysis (at least we hope it does!), and many voters won’t let an unconscious bias sway their candidate selection. Nevertheless, I’m sure any candidate would prefer to come out on the positive side of these unconscious preferences – some voters might lean toward an emotional choice rather than a purely rational one (just as they do with products like autos or liquor), or may find the candidates so close on the issues that the decision becomes a last minute mental coin-flip.

Now for the fun part: you can check out your own unconscious presidential candidate biases by visiting the Presidential Candidates IAT. You can compare both Republican and Democratic candidates.

The caution about biases revealed by the IAT not indicating future actions still applies. Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling Blink, reported that he showed a modest preference for whites when doing a black/white Implicit Association Test. This confounded Gladwell, who is multiracial himself and seems to be at the liberal end of the political spectrum. Despite these IAT results, I suspect that Gladwell wouldn’t secretly pull the lever for Hillary if he thought that Obama would make a better president. Still, you may find it fun to learn what your subconscious voter is thinking.

1 Comment
  1. […] The primacy effect influences choices across many different domains. In one of the experiments, subjects evaluated “salespeople” by looking at photos – pairs of males, females, and teams. When the subjects were asked about their preferences in a questionnaire, they showed no difference in their evaluation of each pair. But, using an implicit association test, a technique to measure subconscious preferences, there was a significant difference in favor of the first-viewed person or team. (For more on implicit association, see The Secret Voter in Your Brain.) […]

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