Skip to main content

Stephen Harper will have more luck wooing fathers with sons rather than those with daughters.Nathan Denette

Vote-chasing politicians aren't exactly subtle.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper makes an announcement, flanked by "average" Canadians nodding in agreement, clapping their palms sore. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau steps off a plane in Montreal to scrum with reporters; a red-and-white sign flashing the word "Leadership" like a billboard in lights, over his right shoulder.

But even the most intentional voter may miss much of the sleight-of-mind that influences where we ultimately check the ballot come Oct. 19. That's because our unconscious is running its own campaign, trumping reason with emotion, bias with fact. We fall for beauty, and even extreme weather events can alter political fortunes. Elections mess with our minds.

"We like to believe that we are all these rational voters, that we are making decisions that align with our best interest or our values, but we aren't – we are terribly irrational," says Tim Caulfield, a University of Alberta law professor and author of the recent book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.

Shark attacks and football

Here's one example: a number of studies suggest that voters tend to punish incumbent politicians for natural disasters that occur near election dates. A 2012 paper with the catchy title "Why Shark Attacks Are Bad for Democracy" studied what happened following a string of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916, and suggested that the attacks led to a drop of 10 per cent in support for president Woodrow Wilson. The researchers called it a case of "blind retrospection" and concluded that voters will "punish incumbents whenever their welfare falls below some "normal standard," whether or not "their pain is traceable to the incumbents' policies." Another study found the same pattern following losses for local college football teams.

Unconscious bias

You might be thinking: "I'm too smart to be influenced by football!" Rather than protecting people from making biased decisions, "intelligence is no inoculation against it," University of Toronto researcher Keith Stanovich says.

We suffer from a "myside" bias. We can see where our friends are going wrong, but don't recognize our own judgment errors. And while both sides of the political spectrum may believe they know better, Stanovich says that U.S. research has found "neither is better informed."

That's because ultimately what we think is a reasoned decision is more often an emotional one. The brain is notoriously guilty of unconscious bias and stereotyping – which is how outspoken female candidates often get labelled as bossy. It often does a poor job of assessing risk or prioritizing information, which explains why, for example, many people are more nervous getting in a plane than a car, even though driving is much more dangerous, statistically, than flying.


Cranky voters also turn out in larger numbers.

But the science is mixed on negative advertising: commercials slagging a competitor lodge in our brains more firmly than positive messages, but a 2007 analysis published in The Journal of Politics found that they have little actual sway on voter choice. American research has found that they work best, however, when they run close to the end of a campaign, so watch for them this week. One heartening finding from a recent study in the journal Political Communication: presenting voters facts disproving the ads can be an antidote to their influence.

Offspring influence

That said, our political leanings also influence which traits we admire most: left-leaning voters have been found to give more weight to empathy and openness, right-leaning voters put heavier onus on competence. Families can push us either way, to follow tradition or rebel. But a 2010 paper published in the Review of Economics and Statistics that analyzed the voting intentions of 80,000 British citizens found that having daughters leaned their parents – and fathers, in particular – more to the left, while having sons leaned parents right. (Earlier research on a Canadian sample drew the same conclusion.)

Our minds are already made up

At the same, we are incredibly loyal – to our own opinions.

Caulfield points to anti-vaxxers as an example: People who refused to give their children vaccines became more, not less, entrenched in their position as their views were increasingly challenged directly and as scientific evidence piled up against them.

It doesn't help that social media serves as a well-designed "Yes" machine. "You can go out and find information that lines up with your personal filter," says Caulfield, causing us to fall in the trap of confirmation bias and selective scrutiny.

Lowest common denominator

Along the way, we may have already succumbed to availability bias: We tend to believe the information that's most easily available. What's more, our brain's focus on aspects of an issue that are more easily understood, at the cost of complexity, a process known as Parkinson's law of triviality.

An example ripped from this campaign: It's easier to debate a couple of citizenship-seeking women in the niqab than economic policy.

U.S. historian C. Northcote Parkinson coined the "triviality" term, also known as "bike-shedding," when he used the real-life example of a finance committee in charge of approving plans for a nuclear power plant; the committee members spent hours debating the design of a bike shed for staff, devoting less time to the thornier issue of the power plant itself.

Ideally, we'd all deliberate on policy before casting a vote, points out Peter Loewen, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, but who's to judge a decision ultimately shaped by our beliefs and values?

In fact, Loewen says, the most rational decision is not voting at all. Our brains tend to exaggerate the effect of our single ballot among millions – just as it does the chances of us winning the lottery with one ticket.

Loewen points to one experiment in which people who were better at estimating probability were less likely to cast a ballot. "So basically," he says, "we have higher turnout because we are bad at math."

Perhaps it's best, for democracy's sake, to store that particular finding away deep, deep in our unconscious.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe