Voting behavior is a form of political behavior. Understanding voters' behavior can explain how and why decisions were made either by public decision-makers, which has been a central concern for political scientists, or by the electorate. To interpret voting behavior both political science and psychology expertise were necessary and therefore the field of political psychology emerged. Political psychology researchers study ways in which affective influence may help voters make more informed voting choices, with some proposing that affect may explain how the electorate makes informed political choices in spite of low overall levels of political attentiveness and sophistication.
To make inferences and predictions about behavior concerning a voting decision, certain factors such as gender, race, culture or religion must be considered. Moreover, key public influences include the role of emotions, political socialization, tolerance of diversity of political views and the media. The effect of these influences on voting behavior is best understood through theories on the formation of attitudes, beliefs, schema, knowledge structures and the practice of information processing. For example, surveys from different countries indicate that people are generally happier in individualistic cultures where they have rights such as the right to vote. Additionally, social influence and peer effects, as originating from family and friends, also play an important role in elections and voting behavior. An important question in this context is how to disentangle the social contagion by peers from external influences. The degree to which voting decision is affected by internal processes and external influences alters the quality of making truly democratic decisions.
Voting behavior types
The existing literature does not provide an explicit classification of voting behavior types. However, research following the Cypriot referendum of 2004, identified four distinct voting behaviors depending on the election type. Citizens use different decision criteria if they are called to exercise their right to vote in i) presidential, ii) legislative, iii) local elections or in a iv) referendum. In national elections it is usually the norm that people vote based on their political beliefs. Local and regional elections differ, as people tend to elect those who seem more capable to contribute to their area. A referendum follows another logic as people are specifically asked to vote for or against a clearly defined policy.
Interestingly, an older study in postwar Japan identified that urban citizens were more likely to be supportive of socialist parties, while rural citizens were favorable of conservative parties. Regardless of the political preference, this is an interesting differentiation that can be attributed to affective influence.
A growing literature on the significance of affect in politics finds that affective states play a role in public voting behavior that can be both beneficial and biasing. Affect here refers to the experience of emotion or feeling, which is often described in contrast to cognition. This work largely follows from findings in psychology regarding the ways in which affective states are involved in human judgment and decision-making.
Research in political science has traditionally ignored non-rational considerations in its theories of mass political behavior, but the incorporation of social psychology has become increasingly common. In exploring the benefits of affect on voting, researchers have argued that affective states such as anxiety and enthusiasm encourage the evaluation of new political information and thus benefit political behavior by leading to more considered choices. Others, however, have discovered ways in which affect such as emotion and mood can significantly bias the voting choices of the electorate. For example, evidence has shown that a variety of events that are irrelevant to the evaluation of candidates but can stir emotions, such as the outcome of football matches and weather, can significantly affect voting decisions.
Several variables have been proposed that may moderate the relationship between emotion and voting. Researchers have shown that one such variable may be political sophistication, with higher sophistication voters more likely to experience emotions in response to political stimuli and thus more prone to emotional biases in voting choice. Affective intensity has also been shown to moderate the relationship between affect and voting, with one study finding a doubling of estimated effect for higher-intensity affective shocks.
Mechanisms of affective influence on voting
The differential effect of several specific emotions have been studied on voting behavior:
Surprise – Recent research suggests that the emotion of surprise may magnify the effect of emotions on voting. In assessing the effect of home-team sports victories on voting, Healy et al. showed that surprising victories provided close to twice the benefit to the incumbent party compared to victories overall.
Anger – Affective theory would predict that anger increases the use of generalized knowledge and reliance upon stereotypes and other heuristics. An experiment on students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that people who had been primed with an anger condition relied less upon issue-concordance when choosing between candidates than those who had been primed with fear. In a separate laboratory study, subjects primed with the anger emotion were significantly less likely to seek information about a candidate and spent less time reviewing a candidate's policy positions on the web.
Anxiety – Affective intelligence theory identifies anxiety as an emotion that increases political attentiveness while decreasing reliance on party identification when deciding between candidates, thus improving decision-making capabilities. Voters who report anxiety regarding an election are more likely to vote for candidates whose policies they prefer, and party members who report feeling anxious regarding a candidate are twice as likely to defect and vote for the opposition candidate. Others have denied that anxiety’s indirect influence on voting behavior has been proven to the exclusion of alternative explanations, such as the possibility that less preferred candidates produce feelings of anxiety, as opposed to the reverse.
Fear – Studies in psychology has shown that people experiencing fear rely on more detailed processing when making choices. One study found that subjects primed with fear spent more time seeking information on the web before a hypothetical voting exercise than those primed with anger.
Pride - Results from the American National Elections Survey found that pride, along with hope and fear, explained a significant amount of the variance in peoples' 2008 voting choices. The size of the effect of expressions of pride on voting for McCain was roughly one third of the size of the effect of party identification, typically the strongest predictor. Appeals to pride were also found to be effective in motivating voter turnout among high-propensity voters, though the effect was not as strong as appeals to shame.
Effects of voting on emotion
The act of voting itself can produce emotional responses that may bias the choices voters make and potentially affect subsequent emotional states.
A recent study on voters in Israel found that voters' cortisol levels, the so-called "stress hormone," were significantly higher immediately before entering a polling place than personal baseline levels measured on a similar, non-election day. This may be significant for voting choices since cortisol is known to affect memory consolidation, memory retrieval, and reward- and risk-seeking behavior. Acute stress may disrupt decision making and affect cognition.
Additionally, research done on voters in Ann Arbor and Durham after the US 2008 elections showed partial evidence that voting for the losing candidate may lead to increased cortisol levels relative to levels among voters who chose the winning candidate.
The use of emotional appeals in political campaigns to increase support for a candidate or decrease support for a challenger is a widely recognized practice and a common element of any campaign strategy. Campaigns often seek to instill positive emotions such as enthusiasm and hopefulness about their candidate among party bases to improve turnout and political activism while seeking to raise fear and anxiety about the challenger. Enthusiasm tends to reinforce preferences, whereas fear and anxiety tends to interrupt behavioral patterns and leads individuals to look for new sources of information.
Research findings illustrate that it is possible to influence a persons' attitudes toward a political candidate using carefully crafted survey questions, which in turn may influence his or her voting behavior. A laboratory study in the UK focused on participants' attitude toward former Prime Minister Tony Blair during the 2001 pre-election period via a telephone survey. After gauging participants' interest in politics, the survey asked the participants to list either i) two positive characteristics of the Prime Minister, ii) five positive characteristics of the Prime Minister, iii) two negative characteristics of the Prime Minister, or iv) five negative characteristics of the Prime Minister. Participants were then asked to rate their attitude toward Blair on a scale from 1 to 7 where higher values reflected higher favorability.
Listing five positive or negative characteristics for the Prime Minister was challenging; especially for those with little or no interest in politics. The ones asked to list five positive characteristics were primed negatively towards the politicians because it was too hard to name five good traits. On the contrary, following the same logic, those who were to list five negative, came to like the politician better than before. This conclusion was reflected in the final survey stage when participants evaluated their attitude toward the Prime Minister.
Military Voting Behavior
Recent research into whether military personnel vote or behave politically than the general population has challenged some long-held conventional wisdom. The political behavior of officers has been extensively studied by Holsti, Van Riper & Unwalla, and Feaver & Kohn In the United States, particularly since the end of the Vietnam War, officers are strongly conservative in nature and tend to identify with the Republican Party in the United States.
Enlisted personnel political behavior has only been studied more recently, notably by Dempsey, and Inbody. Enlisted personnel, often thought to behave and vote as did officers, do not. They more nearly represent the general population. In general, the usual demographic predictors of voting and other political behavior apply to military personnel.
The loss aversion theory by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is often associated with voting behavior as people are more likely to use their vote to avoid the effect of an unfavorable policy rather than supporting a favorable policy. From a psychological perspective, value references are crucial to determine individual preferences.
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