Mind Over Voting: The Checks and Balances of the Brain

Illustration by Michelle Le

Illustration by Michelle Le

An effective democracy calls for the active participation of its citizens through voting. Regardless of socioeconomic class, gender, race, or religion, every citizen of the United States, above the age of eighteen, has the right to vote. Nevertheless, only about fifty to sixty percent of eligible voters turn up at the polls in presidential elections, and even fewer cast their ballots in non-presidential elections. It can be difficult for voters to choose the candidates that reflect their beliefs. This disconnect between politicians and voters is magnified when ballots are filled with candidates known only through skewed television advertisements or news headlines.

Technology enabled virtual connectivity keeps the twenty-first century aware of the rest of the world. While it is essential that humans can adapt and conform their beliefs to new information, people are easily swayed by manipulative sources. Franklin D. Roosevelt pointed out that “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” The world is advancing at an unbelievable pace, particularly in the sectors of scientific knowledge and technology. Politicians and citizens alike must adapt to the technological world and the new modes of campaigning. The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study that found that Fox News had a statistically significant impact on voting outcomes in the 2000 Presidential elections. Towns with Fox News had a 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point increase in Republican vote share in the 2000 Presidential elections as compared to the 1996 elections (1). Another independent field experiment published in the American Economic Journal found that newspapers do not increase the probability of voter turnout; however, media bias alters behavior and opinions. But when individuals perceive a source to be biased, this reporting loses some of its power to influence public opinion (2). Although voters cannot control the external stimuli, they do have some command over how the information influences them.

The constant stream of news can be overwhelming as it is common that a single event produces a multitude of contradictory headlines. Human biases are evidence for how individuals who live in the same world can perceive it so differently, resulting in the controversy of politics. These biases affect everyday behaviors and beliefs. When it comes to controversial decisions, these biases can blind judgment. Confirmation bias is the term used to describe how people tend to seek out information that confirms their worldviews. Hence, potential voters are more willing to read and listen to commentaries or news stations that promote their beliefs. Many of the brain’s functions are unconscious, that is, they are not under voluntary control (3). Biases are an essential adaptation that humans have in order to work cohesively, however, it can be unconducive for voting. If unchecked, they can influence the way people vote at the polls with little basis in truth or actual understanding of the issues and the candidates.

News stations exploit the natural tendencies of humans. Rather than building one’s own campaign, candidates often spend a large proportion of advertisement money degrading their opponents. While this method seems vicious, some studies show that negative comments are more memorable and effective at winning voters’ support (4). One group of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of thirty committed partisan men before the 2004 United States presidential election as they listened to positive or negative statements about their chosen candidates. The brain areas responsible for emotions were more active than those that enable reasoning. Reward-processing brain regions also had increased activity when participants were given the opportunity to counter the attacks by bending the facts. This study suggested that people base their beliefs more on feelings than critical judgment (5).

Despite the seemingly powerful control that emotions have over decision-making, there are regions of the brain that allow voters to synthesize different sources of information. A joint study conducted by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship discovered that lesion to the lateral orbitofrontal cortex causes people to rely on simpler information, such as first-impression social attributions based on physical appearance (6). Seemingly arbitrary factors such as attractiveness or likeability play a larger role in a candidate’s outcome due to the mass dissemination of television. Television provides a platform for politicians to reach the voting population, but it also lends itself to the creation of new biases that may harm certain candidates. A study conducted at McMaster University found that men with lower-pitched voices are more favorably perceived and may gain an advantage in political elections solely based on their attractiveness and vocal quality (7). Many different factors—some of which lie beyond people’s control—contribute to political discernment. While one voter’s lack of understanding may not change the election results, a whole population of disconnected and mindless voters could drastically alter the lives of an entire country.

Citizens of the United States are given the opportunity to voice different opinions every four years in the presidential elections, every two years in federal elections, and every year in local elections. Although the midterm elections have passed, the obligation to be civically engaged remains. To be a cognizant voter is to be a responsible citizen. Similarly to the Founding Fathers’ government checks and balances, conscientious voting engages an individual’s accountability to oneself and some skepticism to one’s thinking. As Abraham Lincoln frankly stated, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

Edited by: Morgan Leff

Illustrated by: Michelle Le

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