The American National Election Studies (ANES) is a research project that has been underway since 1948 and has conducted state-of-the-art interviews with representative samples of thousands of American adults around the country before and after each national election day. ANES data are used by researchers around the world and are widely considered to be the “gold standard” tools for research on voting in the U.S.
At the project’s inception, psychology played an important role in shaping the ANES’s theory and methodology. And the psychological ideas of that time planted deep roots in the voting literature and continue to influence it today. But during the last 15 years, psychology has been producing huge amounts of new research findings that can greatly enhance our understanding of voters and elections. Yet only a little of that work has had impact on the agenda of the ANES.
Jon Krosnick (a social psychologist) and Skip Lupia (a political scientist) are the new principal investigators of the ANES, having taken the helm just one year ago. And in doing so, they set out to enhance the richness and depth of interaction between the ANES and the community of psychological researchers around the country and the world. They are therefore joining with two of their colleagues from Duke University (Wendy Wood and John Aldrich, also a social psychologist and a political scientist, respectively) to foster these connections via this exciting interdisciplinary conference. The conference will bring outstanding psychologists together with political scientists to explore useful new avenues for developing basic psychological theory through the study of elections.
With the nation’s increasing focus on domestic and international politics in recent years, now is a wonderful time for psychology to contribute new insights in this visible arena. Psychologists are increasingly recognizing the value of highlighting the relevance of the field’s work for understanding real-world phenomenon, to promote the visibility and perceived worth of the discipline to society. But even more importantly, the careful development of psychological theories with a close eye on real-world phenomena has a long track record of enriching the psychological enterprise. As increasing value is placed on interdisciplinary collaboration in research throughout academia, this conference will take a step toward enhancing such collaboration with big potential payoffs for psychology and political science and other social sciences as well.
About the ANES
To understand why Americans vote as they do is to illuminate fundamental aspects of human decision-making and social relations. Election outcomes shape the relations between leaders and followers. Elections entail a multifaceted, coordinated process whereby individual citizens acquire many pieces of information over long periods of time, manipulate the information to generate summary judgments, listen to the opinions of experts and novices, talk with family and friends about the contest, absorb paid advertisements intended to influence their thinking, watch debates between candidates, and in the end, cast votes that individually have no impact at all but collectively produce huge changes in the course of history. The effects of election outcomes on power relationships, on the parameters of everyday life, and on citizens’ quality of life are widely felt and long lasting.
A full account of why Americans vote as they do in any election requires a multilevel analysis that recognizes multiple causal factors. The content of the story includes references to historic events unfolding around the world, the activities of organizations such as political parties and labor unions, shifts in the U.S. economy, choices made by the mass media, allocations of advertising dollars by campaign strategists, and much more.
At its core, however, voting is a psychological act. It is the behavior of one citizen, using the information and experiences he or she has gathered over a period of years, to make a consequential selection among offered options. One candidate’s victory and others’ defeats are the cumulative results of individuals pulling levers, coloring in empty ovals, punching out chads, drawing connections between pairs of adjacent horizontal lines, or instead deciding to stay at home. To understand election results, we must explain what happened in the minds of these actors, describing what propelled them down the behavioral paths they chose. The impact of all forces at work, forces that range from images in advertisements to shifts in the unemployment rate to powerful emotional reactions of pride and rage and much more, ultimately passed through the hands that pulled, colored, punched, drew, or abstained.
Thus, elections provide advantageous venues of exploring many aspects of individual and collective choice – topics of interest across many subfields of psychology, especially social psychology and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. Elections create moments when most (if not all) of the nation is focused on the same big question, “Who will lead us?” Elections also involve many related questions about the desired actions of government, the relations between citizens and their representatives, the relations between subgroups of a society, and the meaning and implications of collective history. In and across such contemplations are issues of long-standing interest in psychology, including information processing, choice, attention, learning, selective exposure, perception, and retention, group identification, cooperation, competition, self-interest, persuasion, altruism, aggression, alienation, efficacy, and collective action.
For more than 50 years, the ANES has equipped researchers to explore these issues by providing a view of the political world through the eyes of ordinary citizens. Thousands of scholars across a range of social and behavioral science disciplines have analyzed their data (which are released free to anyone who wants them), and thousands of publications have resulted from these efforts. This work has explored the causes and consequences of individual decisions about whether to be interested in politics, whether to participate in civic life, whether to vote in elections, and how to act when engaging in such activities.
The ANES is like a telescope, a functional magnetic resonance imaging system, a supercollider, and any other scientific instrument that is characterized by high fixed costs and the capacity to serve thousands of research agendas simultaneously. These and other broadly effective research tools work as they do because they efficiently facilitate the coordinated discovery of new and exciting theoretical, conceptual, and empirical insights.