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Political Psychology: The Fascinating Ways Your Brain Changes How You Vote

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With all of the controversy surrounding this year’s election, I think it’s time to put aside all of the politics, scandals and heated opinions to look at voting from a purely scientific perspective.

In this article I’m going to answer questions like:

  • Why do we vote?
  • What influences who wins elections?
  • And why do we believe what we do?

When I did the research for this article, I was shocked by the answers to these questions. Science has uncovered fascinating findings that completely reshape the way we look at voting.

Let’s dig in to the science of voting. 

Why People Vote:

Why do people vote? The obvious answer: to elect government officials. But, I think that there is more to it than that and researchers have discovered that there are three key factors that determine whether or not people vote.

Political efficacy

Wait, what? Political efficacy is just a fancy way of saying you believe that you have the power to influence politics.

The importance of political efficacy was discovered when researchers in Britain wanted to know why young people in their country vote much less than older adults. They found that it wasn’t because the young people are lazy or don’t care about politics. Quite the opposite actually. The problem is that they feel marginalized by the government. After all, why vote if the government isn’t going to listen anyways?

The opposite is also true. If you’re a strong believer in the political process and have seen how the people and initiatives you’ve voted on have made a difference, then you’re going to make the effort to participate in every election.

Social Pressure

A study published by the American Economic Association found that, while some people vote because they believe they should take advantage of their right to do so, a lot of us vote because of peer pressure.

It’s like high school. If all your friends are interested in politics and frequently talk about who they’re going to vote for, you’re going to pay attention to politics and show up at voting booths just so you’re not left out.

The same principle applies to how often you participate in politics. Whether you only care about the presidential elections or you attend every city hall meeting, either you’re pressuring your friends or your friends are pressuring you to participate at the same level. It doesn’t have to be intentional, but our natural drive to be similar to those around us plays a role in determining who votes and who doesn’t.

Ease of Voting

This where laziness and people’s busy lives come into play. The University of Houston discovered the simplest, yet one of the most accurate predictors of whether or not people vote: whether or not they’re registered. As a whole, only 53.6% of adult Americans vote but that percentage rises to 84.3% among registered voters.

In countries like America where citizens have to register to vote, far fewer people vote because they never bother to fill out the paperwork.

Surprising Ways Appearance Affects Voting

We like to think that who we vote for is based on our personal and political beliefs but, in reality, that’s not the way voting works. Your brain tricks you into liking candidates who look like the best leaders regardless of whether or not they actually are.

Here’s how:

Researchers were curious how big of a role facial appearances play in voting behavior so they showed hundreds of people pictures of competing candidates from old congressional elections and asked them who they thought won. Just by looking at the pictures and knowing nothing about the candidates, people correctly guessed the winner 68.8% of the time.

Even more shocking: young children who saw pictures of candidates and thought they were choosing a ship captain they would like to go on a journey with, were just as accurate at choosing the winners of elections as the adults. The results were the same when they tested children from different countries while showing them pictures of  candidates from countries that were not their own. Crazy, right?!

What this tells us is that our brains are predisposed to think certain facial features make people look like competent leaders and our first impressions are so strong that we often don’t change our minds about candidates after seeing them.

So what are the magical traits that convince us to vote for candidates?

For men, our brains look for symmetrical features, high foreheads, prominent brow ridges and a jutting jaw. These traits convey the strength and dominance that we look for in leaders.

For women, less is known, though research has shown that healthiness, rather than dominance, makes them look more electable.

Both sexes are also subject to the same common phenomenon that people who are more attractive are more well-liked. So, next time you catch yourself liking a candidate before you’ve heard much of what they have to say, think about these studies and think again about why you like them.

Body Language Analysis

Along with physical traits, there are many different techniques candidates use to get an “upper hand” on their political opponent. For example, there’s the arm hold that occurs often during handshakes that signals dominance and power over the other candidate:

The arm touch during a handshake signals dominance and power over the other.

Some candidates even invade the other person’s side, taking up a large amount of space and asserting their power:

I analyzed presidential debates from the past 20 years and compiled a guide which you can find here:

Presidential Debate Body Language Analysis Guide

Your Personality Changes Your Vote

Your personality shapes your political opinions more than we realize. Specifically two traits:

Openness: How much we like new ideas, imagination and trying new things.

Conscientiousness: How organized we are, how much we like details and plans.

Researchers looked at these two traits to see if they change HOW we vote. What do you think:

Who is higher in openness?

  • a) Liberals
  • b) Conservatives

Who is higher in conscientiousness?

  • a) Liberals
  • b) Conservatives

According to a study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Here is the answer:

Liberals are more open.

Conservatives are more conscientious.

Liberals are more likely to be:
• High open
• Low conscientious

Conservatives are more likely to be:
• High conscientious
• Low open

This tells us a lot. It tells us why:

Make America Great Again

Resonates with conservatives and not liberals. If you are low open you do not want change, you want to bring back the good old times.

This tells us why:

Change We Believe In

Resonated with liberals. They are high open and crave change.

The Science Behind Your Political Beliefs

While you might think your political beliefs form purely from your morals and those of the people around you, researchers have discovered surprising correlations that explain why people are liberals or conservatives.

There are three key questions that predict people’s political stances. See how well your opinions fit into their findings.

#1 How Easily Disgusted Are You?

Psychologist David Pizarro discovered that there is a direct correlation between how easily disgusted you are and whether or not you lean conservative or liberal. In a series of experiments where he he showed people disgusting images like open wounds, vomit and feces, the people who had the strongest physical reactions to the images were the most conservative while the most liberal people weren’t bothered.

Here’s what disgust looks like:

What makes disgust a powerful emotion is that it doesn’t just show up when people see disgusting things. People have the same disgust reactions toward people and ideas they don’t like. Pizarro’s findings help explain why conservatives prefer traditional viewpoints while liberals embrace radical change; their natural thresholds for what they consider to be unpleasant varies.

I think this study is so interesting because it shows that there is a physiological component to why people believe what they do. It’s not just what you learned growing up or the types of people you spend time with; your natural reactions shape your thoughts.

Watch David Pizarro’s TED talk to learn more about the strange politics of disgust:

#2 Do you prefer things to be simple or complex?

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology studied statements made by 45 US senators over the course of a year. They found that the senators who consistently voted in favor of conservative measures, used much simpler language and reasoning than their liberal counterparts.

For most conservatives, what they vote on comes down to what is right versus wrong based on their moral values. They keep their decisions simple.

Liberals on the other hand were shown to consider a wide variety of factors when deciding what to vote on. To them, issues are complex and should be treated as such.

Now ask yourself: how do you decide what you vote on?

#3 Are you open to exploration?

In a super fun study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers had participants play a computer game where they had to make their way through the game while running into positive and negative stimuli.

Conservative players took an avoidance strategy where, once they were struck by a negative thing, they learned to go in different directions and proceed cautiously. Liberal players meanwhile were less phased by the negative stimuli and completed the game by openly exploring all the different possibilities.

Psychologists used this study to support the theory that people who learn via punishments are more likely to be conservative while those with risk-taking personalities are more likely to be liberal.

How to be a more rational voter:

Now that you’ve learned all the fascinating – and somewhat startling – ways your unconscious mind influences the way you vote, I want to teach you how to be a more rational voter.

If you got anything out of this article I hope it’s that you shouldn’t trust your first impression when deciding who to vote for; it’s not based on facts and tells you nothing about how capable a candidate actually is.

Stop letting your brain trick you by reading speeches and voting records of candidates to decide if you like them. This way instead of being impressed by the politicians who are the best on stage, you can vote for the ones who support the same issues you do.


If you do watch speeches and interviews, observe their facial expressions and body language to look for signs of dishonesty. This is big topic that I’m not going to go in-depth on right now so, if you want to learn more, check out these articles:

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