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The Psychology of Voting

During the earliest years of the ANES, two social psychological concepts played especially important roles: (a) social identification with reference groups and (b) the drive to maintain cognitive consistency. The single most important book on the psychology of voting is The American Voter (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960). One of its authors, Phillip Converse, was trained as a social psychologist, and he brought the richness of social psychology in the 1950s to the table as academic theories of voters were first being developed. The centerpiece of this book was the claim that identification with a political party formed early in life, was usually maintained throughout adulthood, and colored perceptions of political events and political actors to perpetuate itself. Other important work done at about the same time asserted that political campaigns rarely converted voters from one party loyalty to another. Instead, this work showed that campaigns mostly activated predispositions that were in the minds of voters before the campaigns started, and that these predispositions shaped interpretation of incoming information to yield choices that could have been predicted in advance of the campaign (e.g., Berelson, Lazarsfeld, & McPhee, 1954; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1944).

Since this early research, our understanding of voters and elections has expanded and deepened considerably. Many studies suggest that the causal forces that determine candidate preferences fall into two broad categories, those internal vs. external to the minds of voters. Factors within voters’ minds include: (a) predispositions that are in place before a campaign and (b) cognitive and affective reactions to events during the campaign. External factors can be divided into three categories: (a) campaign events that are created by the candidates or their staffs or political parties or other organizations and that are focused explicitly on influencing the election outcome, (b) events that occur around the country and the world that are most likely not influenced by the campaign or the impending election, such as changes in the national economy or the outbreak of war between two foreign nations, and (c) the behaviors of individuals and groups in the immediate vicinity of a voter, especially these others’ reactions to the impending election or to recent national or world events.

A great deal of research during the last 50 years has explored the impact of these internal and external factors. That work has yielded a varied and multifaceted list of specific predictors of candidate preferences, some in voters’ heads (e.g., identification with political parties, liberal-conservative ideology, retrospective assessments of the incumbent’s job performance while in office, prospective judgments of likely performance by the candidates, attitudes toward controversial government policy options, perceptions of the candidates’ personalities, the emotions evoked by candidates in voters, preferences about whether partisan control of the federal government is divided or unified), and others in voters’ environments (e.g., the attributes of people with whom a voter discussed politics, the content of television and newspaper ads, and much more).  With such a long list of predictors, it may seem that the field knows quite a lot about how citizens vote and what determines election outcomes.

In fact, however, the field of psychology is only beginning to develop theories of sufficient scope and complexity to account for the influence of these various internal and external factors on electoral choice. The causal impact of many of these factors appears to be deeply conditional, with many moderated relations among predictors. In addition, the impact of some causal variables appears to be mediated by other process variables that serve as the mechanisms by which the causal influence occurs. The study of voting and elections is at a very early stage in understanding these mediating and moderating psychological forces and, more generally, in understanding electoral choices in terms of psychological processes instead of outcomes.

Some work has been done along these lines.  For example:
Counting likes and dislikes.  One account of citizen decision-making has focused on the moment when voters enter the voting booth and look backward on the campaign that has taken place.  According to Kelley’s (1983) theory, voters count up how many things they like about each candidate and how many things they dislike about each candidate, subtract dislikes from likes regarding each candidate, and then subtract the net score for one candidate from the net score for another candidate to yield a preference.  This simple account predicts vote choices remarkably well.

On-line vs. memory-based evaluation.  However, an alternative account of this process asserts that candidate preferences are not only based on pieces of information a voter can remember about a candidate in the voting booth (e.g., Lodge, McGraw, & Stroh, 1989). Instead, voters may constantly update on-line tallies, which are overall evaluations of the candidates stored in memory throughout a campaign, adjusted in response to events, and retrieved on election day. Research to date suggests that some voters do memory-based evaluation whereas others make judgments via on-line updating.

Mediation and process.  Other efforts have explored relations among the predictors of candidate preferences and the psychological processes by which considerations are combined. For example, Fiorina (1981) argued that political party identification is determined partly by retrospective judgments of incumbent performance in office. Miller and Shanks (1996) proposed a sequence of mediated effects, beginning with social structural location, party identification, and other predispositions, feeding through current policy preferences, retrospective assessments of incumbent performance, perceptions of candidate personalities, and prospective judgments of future performance by the candidates. Blais, Gidengil, Nadeau, and Nevitte (2002) proposed a different sequencing of the mediated influences of these same variables. Rahn, Aldrich, Borgida, and Sullivan (1990) proposed a model suggesting that partisanship, ideology, and issue positions influence perceptions of candidate personalities, which in turn determine evaluations of candidates. Lodge, Stroh, and Wahlke (1990) sketched out the cognitive processes implicit in the leading models of vote choice in an effort to encourage more explicit testing of those assumptions. And Enelow and Hinich (1984) formalized the spatial theory of voting, whereby citizens calculate and integrate distances between themselves and candidates.

Heterogeneity across voters. Some past work has explored differences between subsets of the electorate in terms of the determinants of their candidate preferences. For example, some studies have compared political experts to political novices, suggesting that people higher in political expertise are more likely to use policy issues and ideology to derive their candidate preferences, whereas people lower in expertise are more likely to use party identification, presidential approval ratings, perceptions of candidates’ personalities, and assessments of the nation’s economic conditions to derive candidate preferences. Also, news media attention to particular events can change the weights that readers and viewers attach to particular domains in evaluating political candidates via priming processes (Iyengar and Kinder 1987).

Much more work remains to be done to develop and apply psychological models to identify the causes, mediators, and moderators involved in yielding citizens’ vote choices.

The Potential for New Psychological Contributions
The National Science Foundation’s new grant to support the ANES during the next four years will allow an exciting expansion of data collection activities and brings with it a mandate to pursue interdisciplinary collaborations. This opportunity will permit increased involvement of psychologists in the project; stronger grounding in psychological theorizing and methodological approaches can significantly strengthen the enterprise and, in doing so, can considerably strengthen psychology itself.

Two areas of psychology are especially relevant: social psychology and the psychology of judgment and decision-making.  In recent years, these subdisciplines have generated new insights that can advance scientific understanding of voting and elections. Specifically, this work offers insights into how people: (a) catalogue attributes of objects and using those attributes to choose among the objects, (b) form impressions of candidates’ personalities, including competence, trustworthiness, strength of leadership, and more, (c) are influenced by their own emotional reactions to the statements and actions of candidates, especially as such reactions impact information gathering, information processing, and choice, (d) identify with social groups (e.g., political parties, racial and ethnic groups, labor unions, and religious organizations) that endorse candidates and that have interests at stake in an election, (e) assess the quality of the incumbent’s job performance retrospectively, (f) form expectancies about future job performance of the incumbent and challengers, (g) are persuaded by candidates, their spokespeople, and their advertisements, (h) learn about the candidates via the news media, (i) unconsciously process interpersonal evaluation and choice, (j) are consciously and unconsciously influenced by motivates and goals, (k) gauge the similarity of candidates to the self—in terms of preferences, goals, styles of interaction and communication, (l) are influenced by fear and perceived threats to personal collective safety, (m) form and use broad, principled ideologies and sets of fundamental values, (n) are guided by their own implicit vs. explicit attitudes and beliefs; controlled vs. automatic choice processes, and (o) are influenced by others’ physical appearance.

A little of this work has informed the ANES during the last two decades.  For example, planning committees of scholars who provided advice on the design of each ANES survey in the 1980s sometimes included well-known social psychologists (e.g., Bob Abelson, Susan Fiske, David Sears) who wrote survey questions and published important pieces using the resulting data.  In recent years, however, social psychologists have had much less involvement in ANES activities. This proposal reflects our desire to simultaneously strengthen the ANES and relevant areas of psychology by rebuilding and expanding this critical intellectual bridge.

Payoffs for Psychology from Studying Voting and Elections
At its core, this conference seeks to invigorate – in concrete ways — the enterprise often referred to as “political psychology” in the interest of contributing to the more general enterprise of the field of psychology broadly.  This enterprise has taken two different forms during the last five decades (see Krosnick, 2002). These two forms are defined not by substantive, conceptual, or methodological cleavages in the discipline, but rather by the fundamental priorities of the research enterprises being carried out.
In the phrase political psychologypolitical is a modifier or qualifier of the noun psychology. This ordering suggests that the goals of psychology are central to the work. From this perspective, political psychology could be viewed as a subtype of the larger discipline of psychology, pursuing all the goals of that discipline. Because psychology seeks generalizations about human nature, scholars engaged in political psychology “true to its name” would not be primarily interested in identifying and explaining relationships that hold only in the political context, but rather would make use of the political context to generate more general principles that are pan-contextual.

A second form of the enterprise of political psychology has often looked quite different from this. To characterize that work, the modifier and noun should be reversed in the label, yielding psychological political science as a more apt descriptor of this scholarship. That is, research labeled as “political psychology” has often had a primary interest in serving the core goals of political science: to understand how and why the processes of politics unfold as they do, with no special interest in generalizing beyond the political context to other domains of human behavior.

This conference is intended to enhance the amount of political psychology true to its name conducted by psychologists in the future.  Why should scholars interested in general psychological questions engage in political psychology true to its name?  At least one answer to this question begins with the recognition that research by cognitive and social psychologists during the last century has often been done with a relatively restricted subpopulation of people (i.e., college students) and in laboratory settings that are intentionally constructed to be simple and streamlined, focusing participants’ attention on the stimuli on which they are intended to focus, minimizing their attention to other stimuli, and minimizing the baggage they bring to the situation from prior experiences.  All this makes perfect sense if we wish to understand how people respond to such unusual situations.  The approach also minimizes between-person variance in participants’ thinking and behavior in order to maximize the statistical power of the study to detect the effects of manipulations that are implemented.

But there is a cost paid when taking this approach, in terms of theoretical richness.  When researchers design laboratory experimental paradigms to test psychological theories, they typically choose stimuli relatively arbitrarily, because their theories should, in principle, apply to all stimuli. So a study of attitude change could be done equally well regardless of whether a persuasive message is about vegetables, vacationing in Alaska, or tooth brushing.  In building a laboratory experiment, researchers typically want to strip away the unique complexities that come with any particular attitude object.  This practice allows for a clean test of the hypothesis the researcher brings, based upon abstract theory, to the testing situation. Yet careful attention to the idiosyncrasies of a particular target and situation can have wonderful payoffs for the development of basic, pan-contextual theory.  In short, deep and careful attention to a real-world context inspires the imagination of theory-builders. Watching day to day events unfold leads one to see potential causes, mediators, and moderators that a researcher might not otherwise have thought of.  In this sense, then, political psychology can enrich the process of developing psychological theory that is intended to be applicable across contexts.

Grappling with the political context also forces analysts to recognize the limits of existing theories and evidence and to generate new extensions and modifications that can better capture the complexity of political reality.  The proposition that theories developed in a context-specific environment can illuminate cross-contextual generalizations may seem counter-intuitive. However, it is an insight harkening back to the explanatory framework proposed by Kurt Lewin in 1936, when he stated, “Every psychological event depends upon the state of the person and at the same time the state of the environment, although their relative importance is different in different cases.” More precise is Lewin’s classic formulation: Behavior = (Person, Environment). From this perspective, theory develops as new “conditions under which” principles are identified and empirically supported. These conditions are both the situations in which certain outcomes are likely to occur and the classes of people among whom outcomes are likely to be observed. It is no coincidence that some of the most prominent elaborations of Lewin’s notion of the interplay between personal and situational factors have been proposed by scholars working at the intersection of political science and psychology, such as M. Brewster Smith’s “intellectual strategy” for the study of political personality and William McGuire’s matrix of persuasion processes.  In sum, studying the political context seriously can significantly strengthen scholarship aimed at psychology’s fundamental goals.

To this end, the new ANES will offer wonderful platforms for performing experiments to test psychological propositions.  During the two months before and after the November 2008 election, ANES will interview a representative sample of about 2,000 American adults in their homes. Interviewers will be equipped with laptop computers, and respondents will answer some questions by directly entering responses into the computer while facing is screen and wearing headphones.  This will allow for complex audio and video stimulus presentation, reaction time measurement, and other assessments typically applied in laboratory settings.  Moreover, ANES , will conduct a 21-month panel study with a national sample of about 2,000 American adults, from late 2007 to mid 2009, collecting data once a month via the Internet from these individuals. This design allows long-term tracking of individual change over time.  Because respondents in both studies can be randomly assigned to experimental conditions, the analytic power of the laboratory can be applied to representative samples of adults making real and consequential choices in real time. This is a fertile paradigm for evaluating many psychological phenomena. This will be a considerable incentive for psychologists to become involved with the ANES.