How did you decide who to vote for this election?
You may think your decision was based on an informed rational process, but if scientific evidence is any indicator, your unconscious biases made the decision for you. Bias is the process by which the brain uses mental associations that are so well-established as to operate without awareness, intention, or control. Everyone has bias: it is an inherent human trait and is critical for our survival. The ability to make instantaneous decisions helps us differentiate threat from safety, friend from foe, and “us” from “them” in our everyday lives. This includes our decision-making process of who to vote for this election.
Bias shows up in many ways. Take height for example: men who are six feet tall or higher make up only 14% of the American male population, yet over 60% of our CEOs and military generals. The last time a president was elected who was below average in height was 1896. Height is considered an advantage because we unconsciously associate it with strength, authority, and leadership.
In another study, test subjects were asked to rate people based on their perceived competency and warmth. Light-skinned African Americans, like President Obama, were rated high in competency and high in warmth, while the wealthy, like Governor Romney, were rated high in competency but low in warmth. This has more to do with our biases about these groups than their actual competency and warmth.
According to another study, job interviewers who were asked to meet the candidates in the waiting room were less likely to hire those who were sitting next to an overweight person. The interviewers were completely unaware of how their negative associations with overweight persons were transferred upon the person sitting next to them. So for candidates, the colleagues and constituency with which they associate can have a major impact on how we view them.
These are just a few examples from the wealth of research in cognitive science showing that human beings make a majority of decisions in all areas of our lives based on unconscious biases. This reality forces us to question whether our democracy is based on citizens making informed rational decisions, or unconscious visceral ones. Campaigns understand it is significantly more important to win our hearts first by connecting with us emotionally than it is to win our minds by convincing us rationally.
Our unconscious biases seep in at every stage of our decision-making process. Our first impression of a candidate is based on a set of cues (appearance, facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, etc.) that trigger us in a certain way. In fact, Princeton University researchers found that people were able to identify 70% of election winners after one second exposure to their pictures. Since we have so little information at first glance, our evaluation has more to do with our own biases than with the candidates themselves.
Based on this first impression, we make up a story about the candidate and imbue them with certain values. We sort the person into easily identifiable categories. We consider them either “capable” or “incompetent,” “inspiring” or “infuriating,” “good” or “bad.” Your opinion about the candidate becomes so deeply rooted in your unconscious biases on an emotional level that there is no turning back.
Though you may have researched the candidates and informed yourself on the issues, a virtual firewall has already been created in your heart and mind. It will only allow information that affirms and defends your beliefs, while keeping out anything that challenges them. This might explain the popularity of partisan infotainment and punditry; we go to media and other sources that justify and reaffirm our feelings and views about our candidate of choice.
An informed voter is not just aware of the issues, but also of their own biases. Campaigns and (partisan) media know how to “push our buttons” and take advantage of our biases, often without our own realization. They know that one powerful sound-bite, image, or action can lead us to make up our minds about this candidate, and they will do whatever it takes to appeal to the biases of the desired constituency. If we can become aware of our biases, we can prevent ourselves from being manipulated by others and make more conscious and intentional decisions.
Which candidate best fits your description of “safety,” “friend,” and “us”? What does “presidential” mean to you and which candidate shows those qualities the most? What do you base these determinations on? How might your biases have played into this? This self-inquiry will help you become more aware of the reasoning behind your choice — and that is a critical part of being an informed voter.