Who Are You Voting For?

vote“…voters weren’t using their reasoning faculties to analyze the facts; they were using reason to preserve their partisan certainty”

How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer

Most of April, and now going into May has been a blur of airports, rental cars, and hotel rooms and I admit I’ve become spoiled, my 2pm activities frequently interrupted with the thought that I should go get a cup of decaf from the ever present table in the lobby- only to remember that I’m home and there is no lobby with constantly available coffee. Pity.

Despite all the activity, the accumulation of so many hours in airport terminals and sitting on planes has given me an excellent opportunity to catch up on some reading.

I recently finished How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, which I would describe as a conversational exploration of the biology and process behind decision making.

Being exposed to more television and news than I usually am at home, much of it related to the upcoming election , has had me reflecting on several examples from How We Decide. Among other things he discusses and references studies in partisan reasoning; which unsurprisingly  supported that republicans tend to vote for republican party candidates, and democrats tend to vote for democratic party candidates.

However, exploring this topic in more detail they found that members of each respective party were less likely to be accepting of information that went against their candidate, and more accepting of mistakes or inconsistencies from their own party than they were of the other party. They found that “voters weren’t using their reasoning faculties to analyze the facts; they were using reason to preserve their partisan certainty”.

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini he devotes an entire chapter on commitment and consistency and how influential they can be in decision making, discussing specifically at points how people will justify decisions they make based on how they define themselves.(Like defining oneself as Democrat or Republican). Furthermore they talk about how making certain decisions can cause you to redefine yourself and thus redefine how you make decisions in the future.

Among other examples Cialdini discusses the breakdown of patriotic self image in prisoners of war, but others that come to mind are certainly the media popularized “Marijuana as a gateway drug“, any other reference to brainwashing or behavior modification, or even the old anecdote about boiling a frog. The ideas are all rooted in the idea that gradual change makes way for larger changes over time. Or, for example, how identifying with a particular party starts influencing you to make other decisions based in what you deem appropriate for someone who is a member of said political party.

While Lehrer discusses the brain’s “low tolerance for uncertainty”, or basically the desire to make a decision and be done with it, this can result in what Cialdini goes on to talk about in further detail- how once a decision is made the brain will continue to support thoughts and actions that affirm the original decision, and disregard things that do not. It becomes an ongoing loop to reinforce the original decision. Incidentally this is exactly what they found during the evaluation of political party members that Lehrer describes.

While not specifically discussed I would not be surprised if they found similar results with some people who side to the far left or right on either side of any controversial subjects like abortion, transgender rights, feminism, and religion. I would go so far as to say that perhaps sometimes, especially regarding such emotional topics, I think our arguments are not based on reason at all, but rather based on feelings of what is comfortable or what is “right”.

In fact, Jill Bolte Taylor said in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey-

“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”.

So, perhaps the title should be modified here; the question is not really ‘who are you voting for?’ but rather ‘why are you voting for them?’.

Happy thinking everyone.

In political elections do you only vote within your chosen party; does the information provided about the candidates ever affect your choice? Do you ever re-analyze old decisions that you consistently affirm like your favorite movie, band, or book? Have you committed to a decision just to avoid uncertainty? Have you ever made decisions that you looked back on and realized where more emotional than logical?




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