Advance voting in B.C.’s provincial election closes today. Pollsters and pundits are pontificating on what it all means for Tuesday’s general vote. Meanwhile, I ponder how my own biases, tendencies and other psychological traits influence my perceptions of this election campaign.
Elections build community. The electoral process involves and engages (some) citizens. It commits them to common cause and values.
But communities, like nations, come with borders. Who and what are excluded defines a community as much as who and what are included.
And many election campaigns focus more on building fences around similarities than on building bridges between differences. Parties seeking election strive to distinguish themselves from the pack. They also work to define their communities, so they can efficiently entrench that support and effectively woo voters just beyond — but not too far beyond — the boundaries.
Nonetheless, the process of “building community” via democratic election can be divisive. There’s nothing like an election with one or two emotional issues to emphasize differences.
Our biases and tendencies have been shown to be subconscious and uncontrollable, even when we know they exist and how they manifest, and try to guard against them.
Let’s peek into our psyches to see how some social-psychological factors might influence us at election time.
Similar = same
The more we resemble others, the more we identify with them. Political candidates play up similarities between themselves and voters. Hence, the millionaire candidate with the bank account in the Caymans goes folksy and nostalgic about growing up in a remote coastal community where his parents couldn’t afford peanut butter for his school lunches. (Poor thing, he had to eat fresh crabmeat instead.)
Candidates similarly emphasize differences between the competition and voters.
It’s easier to influence one group of 1,000 voters than 1,000 single voters. Humans tend to follow the herd when we’re in a group, even if doing so goes against our better judgment. When I wander along the fringes of pack mentality, I become easy pickings for lions lurking in the shrubberies. Group leaders, meanwhile, remain safe in the herd’s centre.
Our overall impression of a candidate disproportionately influences our opinion of her character. We get candidates who look great ... and may — or may not — understand the issues.
If we identify with them, we consider them well-prepared and together. If we don’t relate to them, we consider them slick and untrustworthy.
After choosing and paying for a costly product, buyers focus on the product’s strengths and downplay its weaknesses. Buyers also minimize competing products’ strengths and emphasize their failings.
Research shows we do the same with our preferred political candidates leading up to and after an election. Other research indicates our loyalty dissipates with time after voting. Eventually, most voters exercise their democratic right to complain about governing parties, whether or not they voted them in.
When we evaluate our own behaviours, we examine them in the context of remembered intentions, emotions and uncontrollable external circumstances. This means we often go easy on ourselves. When we scrutinize other people’s behaviour, however, we set the bar higher and attribute actions to character flaws.
The more we identify with the other person, the likelier we’ll grant them the leeway we grant ourselves. The greater the perceived differences, the harsher our judgment.
Candidates exploit this by attributing competitors’ mistakes to, for instance, unfitness. Sometimes, the tactic backfires.
I think about all this as I prepare to vote. What kind of community do I want to be part of during the next four years? And am I making my own choice? Or is someone messing with my mind?