From Anne McIlroy’s article, titled “You May Know How You’ll Vote Before You Know It,” in the Science section of the Globe and Mail:
Undecided about how you will vote if there is a federal election this fall? New research suggests you may not know your own mind.
Voters make decisions at an unconscious level before they deliberate about their options, University of Western Ontario psychologist Bertram Gawronski said.
In the latest edition of the journal Science, he and two Italian researchers report on a technique that may allow pollsters one day to read the minds of undecided voters and accurately predict whom they will end up supporting.
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In the Science article, he and colleagues Luciano Arcuri and Silvia Galdi at the University of Padova describe an experiment conducted in Vicenza, Italy. They interviewed 129 residents about a proposed enlargement of a U.S. military base in their community and asked if they were if favour, opposed or undecided about the expansion.
The volunteers also took a computer-based test.
For those who were undecided, the speed at which they linked pictures of the military base to positive words such as “happy” or “luck,” compared with negative words such as “awful” or “pain,” proved to be predictive of the decision they eventually made about the expansion. The test revealed what Dr. Gawronski and his colleagues call positive or negative automatic mental associations.
Other researchers, including Harvard University psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji, have used a similar technique to get at the subtle, ingrained biases that people are not aware of, but which may shape their behaviour.
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From Stefan Lovgren’s article, “‘Undecided” Voters’ Minds Already Made Up, Study Says,” in National Geographic News:
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[Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson, . . . the author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious [click on book’s cover in right margin for more information], said there are two interpretations of the study results.
“It may be that participants really had made up their minds and just didn’t know it yet,” said Wilson, who was not involved with the study but wrote an accompanying article in this week’s Science.
“Or they may have been leaning in one direction unconsciously and that biased how they interpreted the information they got about the issue in subsequent days.”
Gawronski, the study co-author, says automatic mental associations play a particularly important role in a person’s decision-making when it comes to ambiguous situations, such as political debates.
“In a debate between Obama and McCain, it may not be entirely clear who showed the better performance,” he said.
“But undecided voters with more favorable associations with McCain may see him as the one who did the better job” and vice versa, Gawronski said.
“It’s this biased perception of events that then provide the basis of their future decisions,” he added.
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To download a pdf of the Science article (Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, & Bertram Gawronski, Automatic mental associations predict future choices of undecided decision-makers, 321 Science 1100-1102 (2008)), click here.
To listen to an NPR Science Friday interview of Dr. Gawronski and discussion of the undecided-voter research, click here.
For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.