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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Media and The Psychology of Voting

This week’s Republican primaries certainly taught us one thing: Virginians love Ron Paul, and they’re pretty fond of Mitt Romney, too.

Paul captured roughly 40 percent of the Virginia primary vote, by far his best non-caucus showing of the entire campaign. Romney won the remaining 60 percent. That’s good, but it was not even Romney’s best performance of the night on Super Tuesday.

By the way, Romney and Paul were the only GOP contenders on the Virginia ballot. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to file the necessary paperwork, so voters could not choose them.

Did that affect the results? Of course it did. How? That’s harder to say. Answering that question forces us to consider the framing effect, a human tendency to answer questions differently depending on how the options are presented to us, even when the options are identical.

Strictly speaking, the framing effect was not at work in Virginia, since the choices presented to voters there were not identical to the choices presented in other places. But we will see it indirectly, over and over, as the presidential campaign plays out. Each candidate will try to portray his opponents as too risky a choice, because one of the framing effect’s chief impacts is to lead us to choose what we perceive as the safe option to avoid risk of loss (we hate losing), though we swing for the fences when we think we have little to lose (we buy lottery tickets).

We all suffer from the framing effect. It is part of a larger phenomenon that psychologists call cognitive bias. Cognitive bias also includes confirmation bias, which is the tendency to hear what we want to hear, and hindsight bias, which is the tendency to view past events as more predictable than they really were. As I watched Tuesday night’s election coverage, it struck me that I was seeing layer upon layer of biases, overlapping.

First there were the voters themselves, who had to select from among the ballot choices offered to them, and then answered exit poll questions about their own personal characteristics (Tea Party sympathizers, evangelicals, college educated, etc.) and their reasons for voting the way they did. Those voters reflect a group conformity bias: If I think of myself as a devout Christian, and I think Rick Santorum is a devout Christian, and my fellow devout Christians support Rick Santorum, why would I not support Rick Santorum?

Then there were journalists and commentators, who carried their own set of agendas, experiences and mental shortcuts (called “heuristics” by psychologists) into the discussion. Thanks to confirmation bias, they tended to read their own expectations into the results, which were in fact largely predictable.

And finally there are my own biases, since I am as human and subject to these distortions as anyone else, even if I try to identify and overcome them. These overlapping sets of prejudices and predispositions were bound to affect the lessons I drew from Tuesday’s results.

So let’s go back to Virginia. Ron Paul might have earned his strong showing because four in 10 Republican voters actually preferred him as their party’s nominee, but that is so inconsistent with results everywhere else that, in the absence of some reasonable explanation, it is highly unlikely.

Paul might have done as well as he did simply by virtue of not being Romney. The long intra-party campaign has seen a rotating cast of top challengers to the former Massachusetts governor. Clearly, a large slice of the party’s primary voters and caucus-goers would prefer that Romney not be the GOP nominee. The choice that was actually presented to Virginia Republicans on Tuesday was “Whom do you prefer, Romney or Paul?” Some voters may have interpreted this as “Whom do you prefer, Romney or not Romney?” Paul thus would have drawn support from two groups: those voters who actually liked him better than Romney, and those voters who had not really considered whether they preferred Paul over Romney, but preferred anyone to Romney by default.

Consider the last election in Jersey, the media solidly presented Sir Pip as the 'safe pair of hands' or the 'man of experience'. The failure of all candidates who wanted change therefore, was to point out that the people of Jersey had nothing to lose by taking such an option. Humans are not averse to taking a chance, but they are averse to taking a risk. Somehow Jersey ending up taking a risk by electing someone who has absolutely no chance of being able to represent anyone in Jersey (Sir Pip) and has a history of showing that he is willing to act beyond the bounds of normal behaviour - no other Jersey Bailiff has such a checkered history and certainly no other Jersey Bailiff has had his head handed to him on a plate in the Royal Court and been flat out told that he has acted improperly in the role of a Crown Officer, no other Jersey Bailiff has been shown to have deliberately tried to cover up his own errors by pointing fingers elsewhere.

What is more surprising still is that he has gotten away with it.