Why Emotions Rule Elections

Thursday, October 25, 2012
As voters in the upcoming presidential election, we believe we will make rational, well-thought out decisions in the voting booth. Chances are we won’t.
“We are far more ruled by unconscious and emotional processes in choosing an electable candidate, instead of the facts,” said Christopher Fowler, PhD, Menninger’s associate director of Clinical Research. Dr. Fowler examined large scale voter behavior with psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, MD, a world-renowned expert in the subject of large-group processes.
How will our unconscious brain affect the upcoming election? Dr. Fowler offers his thoughts:
We will go with our gut feelings. “It is hard for people to change their minds about a candidate,” he said. “Even if you hear some terrible information about the candidate you support, your brain will find ways to rationalize that information.” Dr. Fowler cites a research study from his mentor Drew Westen, who scanned the brains of committed partisan men before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, while they listened to positive or negative statements about their chosen candidates. “Westen found that it isn’t the cool and logical areas of the brain that process the decision-making, it is the emotional ones.”
Presentation matters more than policy. “Physical attractiveness and stature have far more influence on decision making than any of us would like to think,” Dr. Fowler said, adding that voters look for candidates who appear presidential. “We want them to be tall, stately, composed, yet approachable enough to drink a beer with them.” Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are taller than 6 feet.
It will take enormous effort to vote rationally. Don’t like thinking your vote is controlled by the deep, dark emotional recesses of your brain? There’s not much you can do about it, Dr. Fowler said, but recognizing the influence of your brain’s unconscious is a good start. “We could engage in more reflective recognition that our emotions are involved in our decisions, and challenge our underlying assumptions,” he said.